At UN Review Thai Officials Defend Lese-Majeste, Treatment of Migrants

Nontarat Phaicharoen and Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Bangkok
2021-11-10
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At UN Review Thai Officials Defend Lese-Majeste, Treatment of Migrants Thai pro-democracy protest leader Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul flashes a three-finger salute as supporters wait for a Constitutional Court verdict in Bangkok, Nov. 10, 2021.
Sarumon Nornrit/BenarNews

Thai officials took to the world stage on Wednesday to defend the country’s strict law against royal defamation as well as its treatment of migrants, displaced persons and refugees, during a 3½-hour review before the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The monarchy is integral to the Southeast Asian nation and its security, Nadhavathna Krishnamra, director-general of the Thai Department of International Organizations, said in addressing the U.N. body in Geneva as it undertook a periodic review of Thailand’s human rights record.

“It reflects the culture and history of Thailand, where the monarchy is one of the main pillars of the nation highly revered by the majority of Thai people,” he said. “Its existence is closely linked to safeguarding the key national institutions and national security.”

Despite widespread calls from anti-government protesters to abolish the so-called “Lese-Majeste” law, government officials, including Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, have said it is necessary for upholding law and order.

The review in Geneva occurred the same day that the Constitutional Court in Bangkok ordered three pro-democracy protest leaders to cease from criticizing King Maha Vajiralongkorn and other members of the royal family.

The government led by Prayuth, a former army chief who spearheaded a military coup that toppled a civilian government in 2014, has used the royal defamation law, among other laws, to arrest and jail activists and leaders of the youth-led protest movement since last November

Nadhavathna was responding to criticism from other U.N. member-states and leading Western democracies including the United States, Switzerland, Belgium, New Zealand and Norway.

The U.S. Mission in Geneva called on the Thai government to “review and revise laws and regulations that unduly restrict freedom of expression, including online expression … and eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for Lese-Majeste violations.”

“We remain concerned by the expanded use of Article 112 of the Criminal Code and its impact on freedom of expression and civic space in Thailand,” the mission said in a statement, referring to an article that frames the royal defamation law.

One count of violating Article 112 carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that at least 155 people have been prosecuted for violating the law since Prayuth ordered it be enforced in November 2020.

Refugees and migrants

Earlier in the day, Thani Thongphakdi, Thailand’s deputy permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, addressed the nation’s efforts to assist refugees during his opening statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“Thailand continues to manage various groups of migrants and displaced persons with due respect to their rights and our commitments to relevant international obligations and humanitarian principles,” Thani said.

He noted that Thailand hosts about 2 million to 3 million migrant workers from neighboring countries and is increasing cooperation with those countries to protect the laborers’ rights and prevent exploitation.

Guidelines revised by the interior ministry two years ago have helped accelerate the registration of all non-Thai students into the national civil registration system, he said.

“Thailand is committed to continuing to promote the human rights of stateless persons, particularly in education, social protection and access to birth registration,” Thani said.

He also said the government was working on a draft act focusing on the prevention and suppression of torture and enforced disappearances.

The act, which is being considered by a special parliament commission, “will serve as the key mechanism for strengthening our implementation of the Convention against Torture and promoting ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance,” Thani said.

He made the remarks after Southeast Asian-based Fortify Rights earlier this week called on Thailand to take immediate steps to assist refugees.

“With a refugee crisis brewing along Thailand’s border with Myanmar, the UPR provides an opportunity for Thailand to acknowledge and correct course on longstanding refugee rights concerns,” said Amy Smith, executive director at Fortify Rights, referring to the universal periodic review.

Thailand’s last period review of its human rights record before the United Nations took place in 2016.

“U.N. Human Rights Council member states should do everything they can to ensure Thailand delivers on its promises and international responsibility to protect refugees,” Smith said.

‘Unconstitutional’

Meanwhile in Bangkok, the Constitutional Court ruled that demands voiced by protest leaders Arnon Nampa, Panupong Jadnok and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul to reform the monarchy violated the constitution, as it ordered them to refrain from criticizing the royal family. Unlike a criminal court, the judges cannot issue sentences.

The trio were among key leaders of pro-democracy protests that began in mid-July 2020 and which have called for the constitution to be rewritten, for Prayuth to resign as prime minister and for the monarchy to be reformed. 

Speeches in August 2020 led a retired inspector general to file a petition with the court against the trio. The petitioner, Nataporn Toprayoon, said the monarchy was an untouchable pillar of Thailand.

“The demand to abolish Section 6 of the Constitution which endorses the authority of the king, who is unchallengeable and is the head of state, was a clear intention to overthrow the monarchy,” Judge Wiroon Sangtian ruled.

“The trio’s acts were unconstitutional and a misuse of rights and freedom in order to abolish the country’s ruling system of democracy with the king as the head of state,” Judge Chiranit Havanond said.

Panusaya, a Thammasat University student who is freed on bail and has been charged with Lese-Majeste, challenged the ruling. Arnon and Panupong, who face similar charges, remain in jail.

“I, reaffirm that our demands do not intend to overthrow the ruling system of constitutional monarchy. I don’t respect the Court’s ruling … it is unacceptable,” Panusaya told reporters after she walked out of the courtroom because she was not allowed to address the judges.

Sunai Phasuk, a Human Rights Watch researcher, told Agence France-Presse that the ruling effectively bans efforts to reform the monarchy, including campaigns and protests.

“Any action demanding monarchy reform is illegal ... and that means people will be prosecuted,” Sunai Phasuk told the wire service. “Another worry is that it opens the door for more serious charges including treason which carries the death penalty.”

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