#Thailand Rights groups alarmed over latest free speech crackdowns by Thai junta

rtr3s9u0The EU has been urged to act against Thailand’s military junta in the wake of a “triple attack” on democracy, freedom of expression and human rights.  Concern has been voiced by international rights activists over claims that the junta has recently intensified intimidation on Thai academics who criticize the generals’ efforts to stay in power. 

According to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, army offers have been sent to the homes of academics.  Since the military seized power nearly two years ago, at least 77 academics are said to have been harassed at home by officers advising them to “adjust their critical mindset” or ordered to attend camps for indoctrination.

At least five academics have also been forced into exile including Pavin Chachavalpongpun who had his passport revoked in 2014 after he ignored a summons to attend a military “attitude adjustment” course.  In another development, it was revealed that at least 10 foreign correspondents based in Thailand have been denied media visas during the past two months, supposedly to deter “inaccurate” reporting.

All ten were bona fide journalists and none had produced any work that could be regarded as critical of the junta. The government said the measure, which effectively bans freelance journalist from working in Thailand, targeted those who “cause damage” to Thailand with their coverage.

However, the move has triggered speculation that the junta wants to make an example of some foreign correspondents by denying them visas.  The Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand expressed concern over the policy saying it may  “impede freedom of reporting.”

It urged the junta to allow foreign journalists in the country to operate “fairly and freely.”  It has also emerged that campaigns against the draft constitution will be banned except in debates held by the Election Commission.

This was announced last week by Thai Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngram, who said: “Organisers will hold such debates at their own risks. We have several laws to deal with them.”  Fraser Cameron, director of the Brussels-based EU-Asia Centre, reacted angrily to what he says are authoritarian methods to systematically repress rights and muzzle critics.  Cameron said: “Recent trends involving intimidation of academics, journalists and others campaigning for a restoration of democracy in Thailand are very worrying.”

Further concern was voiced by Willy Fautre, director of Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), a leading rights NGO, who told this website: “The European Union and its member states should take concrete measures to mainstream freedom of expression in their relations with Thailand and strongly urge the military regime of Bangkok to stop denying visas to foreign correspondents to allegedly combat ‘inaccurate’ reporting.”

A referendum on the draft constitution is due to be held Thailand in July but critics say the charter will weaken elected government while giving the junta even greater powers.  Thailand’s pro-democracy ‘Red Shirt’ movement said it will vote against the charter.

Last week, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the general who led the military coup, confirmed that the 200 members of the House of Senators, or upper house, will be appointed for a five-year term.  For many, the new constitution is simply a means to ensure the junta’s long-term control,masquerading as a crusade against corruption.  According to the Bangkok Post, Wissanu Krea-ngram conceded that the junta currently had no alternative plan in the event of the constitution, Thailand’s 20th in recent years, being rejected.

Critics accuse the military of delaying a return to democracy by pushing back the date for elections, which have been set for “sometime” in 2017.

Criticism of the draft refuses to abate, the latest coming from a  leading academic who has urged the Thai Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) to resolve loopholes in its charter draft to ensure political stability for future governments or a coup could return within 10 years.  Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, former rector of the National Institute of Development Adminisration (Nida) said the election system proposed  by the CDC is flawed and will make coalition governments vulnerable to military intervention.

He also said the CDC’s proposal that each political party unveils a list of up to three prime ministerial candidates, who may not be MPs,  before a general election could be problematic.  Another academic, Banjerd Singkhaneti, dean of Nida’s law faculty, said flaws in the draft include the use of a single ballot for constituency and party list MPs.

He also voiced concerns over the “overwhelming” powers of the Constitutional Court.  The country’s generals have struggled to revive Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy after ousting a democratically-elected government in May 2014.

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