Updated at 11:55 a.m. ET on 2018-09-12
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha on Tuesday defended the arrests of people allegedly linked to a little-known republican group, as a former diplomat lamented the erosion of “openness, tolerance and fair-mindedness” that he said once distinguished the country.
Among the at least four people arrested for suspected links to the group was a woman taken into custody for allegedly possessing T-shirts promoting the movement, officials said. The woman, identified only by her first name, Wanna, was picked up at her home near Bangkok on Sept. 6, a junta spokesman told BenarNews.
“We took her into remand because she was found to have a connection with a movement that posed security threats. We found documents, evidence and some symbols linked to a movement. We are probing into the details for sound evidence,” said Maj. Gen. Piyapong Klinpan. The spokesman for the National Council for Peace and Order, as Thailand’s military government is formally known, did not elaborate.
Attorneys with a legal aid group said the woman was still in custody and expected to be charged with sedition. Another three people were arrested and charged earlier for suspected links to the so-called Organization for Thai Federation group, said an attorney with the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a local NGO.
In Bangkok on Tuesday, junta chief and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha touched on the arrests of the woman and the others as he fielded questions from reporters after his weekly cabinet meeting.
“In regard with the arrest of the black Organization for Thai Federation, don’t you say that the government is bullying somebody,” Prayuth said, referring to the underground group. “We are investigating whom they are connected with.”
“Let me ask you, is the Organization for Thai Federation legal? Isn’t it an attempt to change the nation’s ruling system? Could it be treason?” he added. “Officials just did their job.”
According to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, the Thai government had contacted neighboring Laos and requested that Vientiane arrest a Thai national, Chucheep Shivasut, who is allegedly linked to the Organization for Thai Federation.
“Chucheep Shivasut, we tried to catch him for a long time,” Prawit told reporters on Tuesday.
“There is a base in Laos and there are networks in Thailand. They sell T-shirts, flags made by Chucheep. This is rebellion,” Prawit said, adding that the group was trying to “promote a federal republic and put an end to the monarchy,” he said.
The group has no public presence in Thailand but has supporters abroad and is mostly active on the Internet, the Associated Press reported.
Thailand: Once a ‘beacon of truth and hope’
The idea of doing away with the monarchy is a taboo subject in Thailand, where the king is revered and strict laws guard against speech construed authorities as royal defamation. Since the junta sized power in a coup four years ago, scores of Thais have been charged and prosecuted under the infamous Lese-Majeste law.
Press freedoms have also been eroded under Prayuth’s government, human rights and media advocacy groups have complained.
On Monday night, Thai police shut down a panel discussion in Bangkok hosted by the prominent Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) about a U.N. fact-finding team’s report on alleged rights abuses and atrocities committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar.
In a letter to the FCCT, the local police station said it was shutting down the event because such a discussion would “affect the security of the country and international relations.”
FCCT officials said it marked the sixth time that Thai authorities had shut down an event at the press club since the military toppled an elected civilian-led government in a May 2014 coup.
“The professional membership of the [FCCT] is deeply disappointed by the decision of the Thai authorities to shut down a planned discussion about a hard-hitting report by the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar released last month. The report recommended prosecution of Myanmar’s military leaders for alleged genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in ethnic minority areas,” the club said.
“The professional membership of the FCCT believe the Thai authorities have overreacted,” the FCCT added. “This incident has caused unnecessary further harm to the country’s already dented reputation for media freedom – Thailand was once one of the freest countries in Southeast Asia with a vibrant press”
Kobsak Chutikul, a former Thai ambassador and MP who was scheduled to appear on Monday’s panel at the club, weighed in about the forced cancellation.
“Bangkok used to be the center of press freedom in Southeast Asia. It distinguished our country from many others [as] a beacon of truth and hope for the region,” he told BenarNews on Tuesday.
Thais could walk with their heads held high all over the world, proud of the tradition of openness, tolerance, and fair-mindedness of their nation, he added.
“It’s a shame that this stature long cultivated by our fore-fathers is slowly being eroded. Hopefully, the situation will change for the better and return to what it once was,” Kobsak said.
This version contains a new English translation of the Thai name for the underground group.