The right to differ

national July 26, 2015 09:36

By Pravit Rojanaphruk
The Sunday

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Eighteen months ago their group didn't even exist. Today the human rights lawyers and activists known collectively as Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) are a cohesive gathering dedicated to helping those whose views and actions pit them against milita

The group, which owes its existence to the military junta that staged last year’s coup, is headed by Yaowalak Anupan who, along with her new colleagues, was quick to identify the need for legal representation of those prosecuted by the junta, or the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) as it became known, in the wake of the May 22, 2014 coup. These individuals include individuals deemed to have broken security laws or suspected of lese majeste as well as those summoned by the NCPO for “attitude adjustment”.
Bur the turning point for TLHR wasn’t just the coup, Yaowalak tells The Sunday Nation from her modest rented office in the Huay Kwang area. It was, she says, the realisation that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) would not be setting up a hotline to help opponents of the coup who were being detained without charge in secret locations, those who had been charged and those who claimed to have been tortured.
The attitude of a senior human rights figure, whose name Yaowalak prefers not to give, summed up the situation perfectly.
 “He said: ‘This job is too big for us’,” Yaowalak explains.
Yaowalak and her colleagues saw this not as a discouragement but as a challenge and today the group is composed of 12 full-time staff and some 10 pro bono lawyers who help on a case-by-case basis and are paid a modest per diem by the group for providing legal assistance. Among these is rights lawyer Anon Nampa, whose name has become well known over the past 18 months.
Yaowalak herself accepts no salary but depends on private free-lance work. The 48 year-old award-winning lawyer says her staff are mostly young lawyers, aged between 25 to 30 and that they are mainly driven by idealism.
“The one in charge of legal cases and human rights violation documentation told his former employers he had to resign to join TLHR in order document what was going on for the sake of history,” she says.
The group depends on donations and funding, mostly foreign, from the European Union and the Open Society Foundations among others. Yaowalak brushes aside suggestions that such assistance might be controversial given that some supporters of the coup and the unelected government of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who is also head of the NCPO, are wary of foreign interventions in Thai politics. Nor does she see any contention in the fact that the group offers legal representation to anti-coup groups and individuals such as Red Sunday group leader Sombat Boonngam-anong and the 14 student members of New Democracy Movement.
“We’re used to it,” says Yaowalak, a native of Narathiwat province near the Thai-Malaysian border, of the criticism and allegations that the group is no more than a tool of the Western imperialists. “They have always criticised us. The Thai state has never supported Thai [rights] NGOs even before the coup.
“If they claim we’re undermining national security, our response is that this is not the case as Thailand is a signatory to [various international] rights conventions. Such claims are merely aimed at discrediting us. The way we spend our budget can be scrutinised at any time,” says Yaowalak who studied law at Ramkhamhaeng University.
“It’s like we have become a party of conflict to the [military] state so Thai organisations won’t be funding us,” she continues, adding that some Thai individuals do make modest donations to the group. The highest recognition so far has come from the French Embassy, who recognised the group with a human rights award known as “Prix des Droits de L’Homme de l’Ambassade de France 2014”.
Born into a middle class family, her late father worked as a middle-ranking police officer while her mother run a small food stall. After completing high school, she followed in the footsteps of her student peers and travelled to Bangkok to enrol at Ramkhamhaeng University where she worked towards a degree in law.
 Her CV is a testament to her interest in human rights and women’s rights and while she didn’t much relish the year she spent practising business law with a private legal firm, she is nonetheless grateful that the lucrative work allowed her to accumulate substantial savings.
Work at TLHR is less certain and Yaowalak and her staff are well aware that the group’s existence is temporary.
“When the military regime is gone we will disband. We are an ad-hoc organisation and we didn’t think we would have to be around for more than a year. But rights violations have not abated so we will continue in parallel with the NCPO, possibly a little longer, as some of the legal cases will outlive the junta,” says the unassuming lawyer who now considers Bangkok as her home,
Providing legal representation for those prosecuted by the military for their political stance offers a unique challenge.
 Of the 48 cases being handled by the group, 23 involve lese majeste and involve a total of 81 clients.
The group is critical of the use of military courts to try some civilians in accordance with the NCPO’s order No 37/2014, pointing to the questions of  independence and impartiality of such a court.
 “The military court comes under the Ministry of Defence, the judging panels are under the Ministry of Defence and two out the three members of these panels are military officials who may not have completed legal studies,” TLHR stated in its report, which was to have been presented at a June press conference that was cancelled after the NCPO ordered the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) not to allow its venue to be used.
A second problem is the trying of military cases in abnormal times, which results in defendants being deprived of the right to appeal. This is in contravention of the rule of law as well as Article 14 (5) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which stipulates that defendants must have the right to review of their case by a higher court. Other problems include bail, filing of the Case and delays in prosecution.
While she and her colleagues deeply resent being followed and monitored by security officers, TLHR will not plead with the junta to stop the practice. “We don’t recognise the legitimacy of the NCPO,” Yaowalak points out.
 “We’ve turned down the invitation for reconciliation talks twice. But they said they’ll invite us again.
“I am surprised though that the junta has tolerated our existence … and least so far,” she concludes.