Attacks on critics of the junta and Election Commission are a clear sign we’re not out of the woods of repression yet
The 2014 military coup did indeed bring to an end the street mayhem among warring political factions, which was one of the generals’ stated goals. But the intervention also came with the promise that democracy would quickly be restored.
The promise to hold elections took five years to keep, and in the interim all of Thailand endured authoritative repression. No one was allowed to criticise the military junta. No one was allowed to organise politically oriented meetings of any kind.
The election finally came, ending in widespread confusion, animosity and serious doubts about its validity. We will have no clear view of the future until after the coronation of His Majesty the King next month. And now, just as a measure of normalcy was expected to return, the politically charged violence is back, and it is a further direct challenge to freedom of speech.
A large and vocal group of citizens wants members of the current Election Commission thrown out, citing perceived incompetence in conducting the March 24 polls and the string of irregularities that emerged in its wake. Thugs wearing motorcycle helmets to disguise their identities have in recent days physically attacked some of those demanding change and otherwise criticising the junta.
This is far from the level of bloody street violence brought to an abrupt end in May 2014, but it is alarming nonetheless. The gang that torched Ekachai Hongkangwan’s car while it was parked outside his Bangkok home was not hitting a random target. This was a direct threat to him and a warning to all dissenters.
Whether or not we agree with Ekachai’s blame-and-shame approach to political discourse, it is crucial that his right to free expression be respected. He has been threatened and harassed before for openly challenging Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan over his collection of ultra-expensive wristwatches and he has won many admirers for his outspokenness.
On March 31 two unidentified assailants burst into the Samut Prakan home of another critic of the Election Commission, Anurak Jeantawanich, and beat him up. Such incidents have incensed Human Rights Watch, whose director in Asia, Brad Adams, urged the authorities to “act promptly to end the deepening climate of fear”.
The failure of the police to pursue the people taking part in the attacks on democracy activists and whoever is sponsoring them suggests that the public is justified in its concern over our basic freedoms. Complaints have been filed with the National Human Rights Commission and the Justice Ministry’s Department of Rights and Liabilities Protection, but not even these state agencies are likely to have the manpower or muscle to shield Ekachai and the others. The police could do so – if so ordered by higher authorities.
Affording protection to citizens who speak out critically about the political situation or even military involvement in politics would be one smart way for the junta to show the world that democracy is indeed in bloom again here. The election, which was slanted from the beginning in the generals’ favour, did not accomplish that.
“The frequency of these attacks and lack of consequences for perpetrators suggest that the Thai government is turning a blind eye to them – or worse,” Adams said on behalf of Human Rights Watch. The government should adopt measures “to ensure that activists can safely exercise their rights without fear of reprisals”. We firmly concur, as will any fair-thinking Thai.