Updated at 9:40 a.m. ET on 2018-01-31
Thai police charged seven pro-democracy activists Tuesday with sedition and defying a ban on public gatherings for leading a hundred-strong demonstration in downtown Bangkok that demanded the junta hold elections in November and not postpone them till 2019.
The seven who belong to an activist organization, the “Democracy Restoration Group,” violated a military-government order prohibiting public political gatherings of five or more people by organizing the protest over the weekend, Deputy National Police Chief Gen. Srivarah Rangsipramanakul told reporters.
“The NCPO was a plaintiff, filing a complaint with the Pathumwan station police to charge the activist leaders. The next legal step is to summon them to hear the charges,” Srivarah said, referring to the junta by its official acronym, the National Council for Peace and Order.
“We will investigate whether there is someone who finances them to hold anti-government activities,” Srivarah said. He added that police had a suspect in mind, but he declined to reveal a name.
On Saturday, the group staged its demonstration at the corner of a busy metro station in Bangkok’s Pathumwan district, where participants repeatedly chanted “elections.”
The demonstration followed on the heels of public comments by two deputy prime ministers who indicated that national polls – which Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha had previously pledged to hold in November 2018 – could be postponed again, possibly till early next year. One of the deputies cited delays in passing laws that are required for setting up elections.
Before last week’s comments by Prayuth’s deputies, the NCPO postponed elections on at least four occasions since the military seized power in a coup that toppled a civilian government in May 2014, although junta leaders had vowed to put Thailand back on a path to democracy.
“The elections could be held in February next year. The inability to set a clear date for elections is due to the junta’s lack confidence that military-friendly political parties could gain the most seats,” Thitipol Pakdeewanich, a lecturer in political science at Ubon Ratchathani University, told BenarNews.
‘I am not worried’
Each of the activists who led Saturday’s demonstration could face up to seven years in prison, if convicted, according to a legal expert.
Rangsiman Rome, one of the seven leaders, said he found out about the charges through media reports but had not been officially summoned by police to hear the charges.
“I am not worried as the prosecution will be through a civilian court, not a military one,” Rangsiman told BenarNews in a phone interview.
“We can be charged with lawsuits but we can still fight. We will hold another [demonstration] this Feb. 10,” Rangsiman said.
Since the May 2014 coup, at least 64 people have been charged with sedition and at least 82 have been charged with violating Lese-Majeste, Thailand’s strict law against royal defamation, according to statistics compiled by iLaw, a local human rights NGO.
A 24-year-old pro-democracy activist, Chanoknan Ruamsap, fled Thailand earlier this week after she learned that she was being charged with Lese-Majeste for sharing via Facebook a BBC News profile of the country’s new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, published soon after the death King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016, according to reports.
In August 2017, another activist, Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison on a royal defamation charge for “liking” the same BBC article on his Facebook page.
“Thailand’s military junta has used its unchecked powers to drop the country into an ever-deeper abyss of human rights abuses," Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said when HRW came out this month with its annual worldwide report. “Instead of restoring basic rights as promised, the junta prosecuted critics and dissenters, banned peaceful protests, and censored the media.”
Prayuth: Junta needs more time
However, despite the ban on political demonstrations, some anti-junta protests have taken place since last year that reflected apparent growing discontent with the military government’s policies and its repeated delays in holding the first polls since the coup.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayuth, the retired army general who led that coup, denied that he had postponed the elections till next year. He told reporters he could not give a specific date for polls.
“I don’t know, it is up to the laws related to the elections ... They haven’t finished passing laws ... I haven’t postponed the date,” Prayuth said in Bangkok.
“I beg for some more time to lay a foundation for the country, for how long, it would depend on the laws. Don’t feel desperate in me and the NCPO. I beg you for your understanding,” he said.
Correction: An earlier misquoted activist Rangsiman Rome as saying that police had not summoned him officially to appear in court to hear charges against him.