Thai Lawyer Receives Woman of Courage Honor from US State Department

Uayporn Satitpanyapan
180323-TH-courage-1000.jpg U.S. first lady Melania Trump (bottom left) smiles at Sirikan Charoensiri of Thailand after presenting the International Women of Courage awards at the State Department in Washington. With them are Sister Maria Elena Berini of Italy (top left), Aiman Umarova of Kazakhstan and Dr. Feride Rushiti of Kosovo, March 23, 2018.

The United States on Friday recognized the fearlessness of a Thai attorney for drawing attention to human rights problems in her junta-ruled country.

Sirikan Charoensiri, co-founder of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), and nine others from around the world received the 2018 International Women of Courage Award during a ceremony at the State Department attended by U.S. first lady Melania Trump.

“TLHR has represented hundreds of clients since the military coup, often as the only alternative for those facing politically-motivated charges,” according to a statement from the State Department. “Because of the political sensitivity of the organization’s work, TLHR lawyers and staffers … have been subjected regularly to harassment, intimidation and criminal charges.”

Before the ceremony, Sirikan, 31, spoke to BenarNews about her experience of co-founding TLHR in 2014, immediately after Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha led a coup that deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

“We were set up as an immediate response to the imposition of martial law because some of us had been working in the Deep South of Thailand and we know that human rights lawyers need to step out,” she said, referring to her country’s heavily militarized and insurgency-wracked southern border region.

“We knew that this was not going to be a temporary mission and we knew that providing legal aid is not enough,” she said. “We needed to have strong documentation to use for advocacy for human rights and democracy in Thailand, so we set up a team to monitor and document human rights violations.

“We do not just defend civilians; we defend the whole system, we defend the rule-of-law system, so it will not be destroyed.”

Sirikan said TLHR had handled about 140 cases – half of them in military courts and the other half in civilian courts – since its inception.

“Among those are cases of violating a ban of public gathering of five people that remains in effect. This ban is the real problem that curbs the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the free movement of young people,” she said, adding the ban must be revoked.

Sirikan said 2018, so far, had seen many instances where people were arrested because they were protesting for people to have the power to override the military government’s sweeping power under the constitution.

“We have seen suppression earlier this year, which implies the movement is getting stronger,” she said.

Sirikan Charoensiri, co-founder of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. [Uayporn Satitpanyapan/BenarNews]
Sirikan Charoensiri, co-founder of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. [Uayporn Satitpanyapan/BenarNews]

Sirikan dismissed the notion that someone was paying the protesters.

“[T]hose who come out [to protest] have been labeled as anti-junta … they only came out to demand democracy – to return to normalcy, return to protection of human rights, return to the rule of law,” she said. “When you criticize for military government, you get in to trouble. Who would want to get into trouble, to be jailed, to be arrested – to risk your life for someone’s money?”

During the interview, BenarNews asked her about what young Thais wanted for their country.

“There are principles that students have been advocating … democracy, human rights, justice, equality and public participation. I think these are what young people in Thailand are demanding,” she replied.

‘Human rights hero’

Sirikan is the second Thai to be honored with the Women of Courage award, following Rodjaraeg Wattanapanit who received it 2016.

At that time, Rodjaraeg, the co-owner of the Book Re:public bookstore, which is seen as an oasis for the free exchange of ideas in Thailand, said she worried about censorship and diminishing freedoms since the junta led by Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha seized power in May 2014.

Shortly after receiving her award, Rodjaraeg was forced by the junta to cancel an event where people were going to discuss a new constitution being drafted then by a commission appointed by the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta’s official name.

Rodjaraeg is the co-founder of Creating Awareness for Enhanced Democracy, or “Café Democracy,” which is dedicated to increasing political awareness, empowering citizens and encouraging the free exchange of ideas.

Last year, global rights watchdog Amnesty International honored Sirikan with a Lifetime Achievement Award, calling her one of its four “human rights heroes.”

Back home, Sirikan is facing sedition charges stemming from her work in defending student activists. Legal experts say she is probably the first attorney in Thai history to face a sedition charge, according to the Bangkok Post.

“I feel humbly honored to be selected to one of the 10 awardees this year,” Sirikan told BenarNews about the award that the United States was about to bestow on her. “[I]t is a recognition of our work but also for the U.S. and other countries to not forget about the situation in Thailand.

“We have not yet resumed democracy as it’s supposed to be,” she added. “So I think that message is very important.”


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