Updated at 1:55 p.m. ET on 2020-03-12
Thailand’s Ministry of Justice has signed with military legal officers an agreement aimed at promoting an understanding of human rights and related laws among members of the armed forces.
Officials of the justice ministry’s Rights and Liberties Department and the military’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on Monday, about a year after military-backed parties won the March 2019 elections that, according to critics, was engineered to keep former junta leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha as prime minister.
Prayuth had held the post since 2014 when he led a junta that overthrew the elected government of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Thailand has seen more than 20 coups since the country converted from absolute to constitutional monarchy in 1932.
“The purpose of the MOU is to promote knowledge and understanding of rights, freedom, human rights and related laws among judge advocates … so they can train other personnel,” said a statement released after the ceremony.
Following the 2014 coup, the Prayuth-led National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – the junta’s official name – ordered civilians to stand trial in military court. At least 98 people had been charged with violating Lese Majeste, Thailand’s strict royal defamation law, while more than 400 faced allegations of violating a law that prohibits public political gatherings of more than five people.
After Prayuth took his oath in July 2019 as the leader of an elected government, he revoked many NCPO orders that deprived people of political freedom and transferred those cases from military courts to civilian courts. Despite the change, JAG officers did not stop prosecutions of opposition members.
In October 2019, a JAG officer filed a complaint against 12 people, including academics, civilians and opposition party members, for allegedly discussing potential solutions to the separatist conflict that has dragged on for years in Thailand's southern border region, known as the Deep South.
One of those charged, Chalita Banthuwong, a professor at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, appeared to suggest that an amendment to the 2017 junta-backed constitution might help settle the conflict, according to a video posted on YouTube and Facebook.
Government officials accused her and the others, including Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the former leader of the now-defunct Future Forward Party, of attempting to create chaos and incite turmoil during Sept. 28, 2019, Deep South forum. Police said they are continuing their investigation.
Chalita expressed skepticism about the MOU.
“I haven’t seen the details yet but it is likely just a mere image-building effort rather than an attempt to genuinely protect people’s rights and freedom,” Chalita told BenarNews. “In the past it was the military who filed complaints to police against the junta-resistant citizens.”
Deep South issues
Col. Pramote Prom-in, spokesman for the Internal Security Operations Command-4, which covers the Deep South, hailed the agreement as a positive step.
Violence related to a separatist insurgency has led to more than 7,000 deaths since 2004 in the mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking region.
“The MOU signing is a good thing. It makes government officials aware of human rights issues essential to the Deep South,” Pramote told BenarNews on Tuesday.
“Previously we were not aware of human rights concerns because they were not in our training curriculum,” he said. “We learned on the job and gained experience.”
He blamed some human rights activists for publicizing false stories about the military.
“The prosecutions would not have happened to some rights advocates if they were sincere,” he said, adding, “Some of them accused us of torture.”
He said he wanted the activists to understand that violent suspects often have weapons, so the military must react to subdue them.
Meanwhile, the family of Abdullah Esomuso, 34, who fell into a coma after being interrogated at an army camp in Pattani province in July 2019 and died a month later, said they had been waiting for justice.
On Tuesday, Abdullah’s family told BenarNews that Pattani police had interrogated 18 witnesses and were compiling evidence to proceed with a complaint.
“Our lawyer will urge the police to speed up the case. We heard from the Cross Cultural Foundation that officials from the Department of Special Investigation plan to question his widow and me and gather forensic evidence,” Abdullah’s cousin, Muhammad Nomud Mamud, told BenarNews.
This story was updated to correct the name of the Cross Cultural Foundation.