Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, with King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun as head of state. In a 2014 bloodless coup, military leaders, taking the name National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and led by then army chief General Prayut Chan-o-cha, overthrew the civilian government administered by the Pheu Thai political party, which had governed since 2011 following lower house elections that were generally considered free and fair.
The military-led NCPO maintained control over the security forces and all government institutions.
An interim constitution, enacted by the NCPO in 2014 was in place until April 2017, when the king promulgated a new constitution, previously adopted by a popular referendum in 2016. The 2017 constitution stipulates the NCPO remain in office and hold all powers granted by the interim constitution until establishment of a new council of ministers and its assumption of office following the first general election under the new charter. The 2017 constitution also stipulates that all NCPO orders are “constitutional and lawful” and are to remain in effect until revoked by the NCPO, an order from the military-appointed legislative body, the prime minister, or cabinet resolution. The interim constitution granted immunity to coup leaders and their subordinates for any coup or postcoup actions ordered by the ruling council, regardless of the legality of the action. The immunity remains in effect under the 2017 constitution. Numerous NCPO decrees limiting civil liberties, including restrictions on freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press, remained in effect throughout most of the year. NCPO Order 3/2015, which replaced martial law in March 2015, granted the military government sweeping power to curb “acts deemed harmful to national peace and stability.” In December, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha lifted the ban on political activities, including the ban on gatherings of five or more persons. The military government’s power to detain any individual for a maximum of seven days without an arrest warrant remains in effect, however.
Human rights issues included unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government or its agents; torture by government officials; arbitrary arrest and detention by government authorities; censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; abuses by government security forces confronting the continuing ethnic Malay-Muslim insurgency in the southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani, and parts of Songkhla; restrictions on political participation; and corruption.
Authorities took some steps to investigate and punish officials who committed human rights abuses. Official impunity, however, continued to be a problem, especially in the southernmost provinces, where the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in the State of Emergency (2005), hereinafter referred to as “the emergency decree,” and the 2008 Internal Security Act remained in effect.
Insurgents in the southernmost provinces committed human rights abuses and attacks on government security forces and civilian targets.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Broad NCPO orders restricting freedom of expression, including for the press, issued following the 2014 coup, remained in effect at year’s end. Invoking these orders, officials suspended media outlets, blocked access to internet sites, and arrested individuals engaging in political speech. In addition to official restrictions on speech and censorship, NCPO actions resulted in significant self-censorship by the public and media. The NCPO routinely banned dissemination of information that the NCPO asserted could threaten the NCPO or “create conflict” within the country.
Freedom of Expression: The NCPO enforced limits on free speech and expression using a variety of regulations and criminal provisions, including intimidation of speakers, monitoring meetings, and threats of prosecution or arrest.
Article 112 of the criminal code, the so-called lese majeste (“royal insult”) law, makes it a crime–punishable by a maximum of 15 years’ imprisonment for each offense–to criticize, insult, or threaten the king, queen, royal heir apparent, or regent. The government continued to use this law to prosecute anyone who was in any way critical of the monarchy or members of the royal family. The law also allows citizens to file lese majeste complaints against each other. The Attorney General’s Office issued a directive on February 21 announcing that the decision to indict lese majeste suspects lies solely with the attorney general. Previously public prosecutors could also decide whether to indict lese majeste cases.
No new lese majeste prosecutions had begun this year as of September, but in January the government issued at least one summons under Article 112 to prodemocracy student activist Chanoknan Ruamsap, accusing her of sharing on her Facebook page a BBC profile of the king. No charges have been filed as the activist reportedly departed the country prior to being arrested and has not returned.
The government continued regularly to conduct lese majeste trials in secret and prohibited public disclosure of the content of the alleged offenses. The government also frequently tried lese majeste cases in military courts that provided fewer rights and protections for civilian defendants, notwithstanding a September 2016 order that ended the practice of trying violations of Article 112 in military courts for offenses committed after that date (see section 1.e.). International and domestic human rights organizations and academics expressed concern about the lese majeste law’s negative effect on freedom of expression.
Official statistics varied by agency, but new lese majeste cases increased dramatically following the 2014 coup. According to local NGO Internet Dialogue on Law Reform, as of September 94 new lese majeste cases had been filed since the 2014 coup with 43 convictions. In some of these cases, the accused committed the alleged offense prior to the 2014 coup, but authorities only filed charges afterwards. According to the Department of Corrections, 128 persons were imprisoned on lese majeste charges as of August (including a number of persons convicted for corruption-related offenses under Article 112 for misuse of royal title to further business interests).
In January the Yala Provincial Court sentenced 23-year-old Nurhayati Masoh, a visually impaired woman, to three years in prison, reduced to one and one-half years after she pled guilty to sharing an article deemed defamatory to the monarchy on her Facebook page. She appealed the conviction and was acquitted in February. She was rearrested in March and the Bangkok Criminal Court, after a one-day trial, sentenced her to two years in prison under the Computer Crimes Act, rather than lese majeste, for sharing audio clips deemed defamatory to the monarchy on her Facebook page.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that Nathee Suwajjananon was arrested this year and brought before the military court for pretrial detention for allegedly posting online comments related to the late king in 2016. On November 13, the military prosecutor issued a nonprosecution order on lese majeste charges and returned the case file to police. Police officials then submitted a request for Suwajjananon’s pretrial detention to a civilian court, resulting in the public prosecutor indicting him on sedition charges under Article 116 rather than lese majeste charges under Article 112, an increasingly common prosecutorial tactic.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active but faced impediments to operating freely. Many media contacts reported concerns about NCPO orders authorizing government officials to limit press freedom and suspend press operations without a court order.
The 2017 constitution requires owners of newspapers and other mass media to be citizens. Government entities owned and controlled most radio and broadcast television stations.
The Thai Journalists Association (TJA), the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association (TBJA), and the Online News Providers Association called on the NCPO to refrain from passing laws that could affect freedom of the press. Their joint statement also called on the NCPO to revoke its announcements and orders that restrict freedom of the press. The statement also called on the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to advocate for broadcast media reform without government interference.
In September police shut down a forum organized by foreign journalists to discuss whether senior military officers in Burma should face justice for alleged human rights abuses committed by their forces against Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities. According to press reports, approximately one dozen police arrived ahead of the scheduled panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand and ordered the panelists not to speak.
Violence and Harassment: Senior government officials routinely made statements critical of media. There were numerous reports of security forces harassing citizens who publicly criticized the military government, including by visiting or surveilling their residences or places of employment. Media operators also complained of harassment and monitoring.
In April there were reports that the management of television station PPTV pressured the station’s news director to resign after military officials repeatedly visited the station related to the journalist’s coverage of alleged corruption involving the defense minister.
On May 21, the government warned journalists they would arrest them if they did not wear government-issued armbands while covering prodemocracy demonstrations. The TJA released a statement saying it was not aware of the new protocol and advised members of the press to abide by their regular procedures and display official badges.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The NCPO restricted content deemed critical of or threatening to the military government, and media widely practiced self-censorship. NCPO Order No. 41/2016 empowers the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to suspend or revoke the licenses of radio or television operators broadcasting content deemed false, defamatory to the monarchy, harmful to national security, or unnecessarily critical of the military government. Authorities monitored media content from all media sources, including international press.
In September police arrested three women for possessing with intent to sell T-shirts with a small symbol deemed to be a logo for an antimonarchy, anti-NCPO movement advocating for removal of the color blue, the color representing the monarchy, from the Thai flag.
The emergency decree, which remained in effect in the conflict-affected southernmost provinces, empowers the government “to prohibit publication and distribution of news and information that may cause the people to panic or with an intention to distort information.” It also authorizes the government to censor news considered a threat to national security.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a criminal offense punishable by a maximum fine of 200,000 baht ($6,015) and two years’ imprisonment. Military and business figures filed criminal defamation and libel cases against political and environmental activists, journalists, and politicians.
There were several high-profile cases of criminal defamation filed against human rights defenders and government critics. In February the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) filed a complaint against Ismael Tae, founder of the Pattani Human Rights Organization, accusing him of defamation related to his appearance on a television show to discuss the torture he endured in military detention in 2008.
National Security: Various NCPO orders issued under Section 44 of the interim constitution, later extended by the 2017 constitution, provide authorities the right to restrict distribution of material deemed to threaten national security. Media associations expressed alarm regarding the sweeping powers they complained lacked clear criteria for determining what constitutes a threat to national security.
On May 9, the NBTC suspended for 30 days the broadcast license of Peace TV, a television channel operated by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, on allegations the channel’s content threatened national security and the morality of the country. The TJA and TBJA issued a joint statement calling on the NBTC to review its decision to suspend Peace TV.
The government continued to restrict or disrupt access to the internet and routinely censored online content. There were reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Under the Computer Crimes Act (CCA), the government may impose a maximum five-year prison sentence and a 100,000 baht ($3,000) fine for posting false content on the internet found to undermine public security, cause public panic, or harm others, based on vague definitions. The law also obliges internet service providers to preserve all user records for 90 days in case authorities wish to access them. Any service provider that gives consent to or intentionally supports the publishing of illegal content is also liable to punishment. By law authorities must obtain a court order to ban a website, although officials did not always respect this requirement. Media activists criticized the law, stating it defined offenses too broadly and some penalties were too harsh.
Individuals and groups generally were able to engage in peaceful expression of views via the internet, although there were numerous restrictions on content, including proscribing lese majeste, pornography, gambling, and criticism of the NCPO.
Civil society reported the government used prosecution, or threat of prosecution, under the Computer Crimes Act as a tool to suppress speech online. From January to June, 57 persons were charged or prosecuted under sedition and the Computer Crimes Act. On August 24, the Technology Crime Suppression Division charged three members of a political party with violating the Act. The charges stemmed from a Facebook Live video in which one of the party leaders criticized politicians who switched parties as supporters of the NCPO. If convicted, they could face a five-year prison term.
The government closely monitored and blocked thousands of websites critical of the monarchy. The prosecution of journalists, political activists, and other internet users for criminal defamation or sedition for posting content online further fostered an environment of self-censorship. Many political online message boards and discussion forums closely monitored discussions and self-censored to avoid being blocked. Newspapers restricted access to their public comment sections to minimize exposure to possible lese majeste or defamation charges. The NBTC also lobbied foreign internet content and service providers to remove or locally censor lese majeste content. Human rights contacts reported that police sometimes asked detained political activists to reveal passwords to their social media accounts.
Former Chiang Mai governor Pawin Chamniprasart filed a complaint alleging violations of the Computer Crimes Act in March against a local magazine for posting images of a student artist’s drawing of three ancient Thai kings wearing pollution masks to call attention to seasonal air pollution. The complaint alleged the drawings negatively affected the image of Thailand’s ancient kings. Chiang Mai authorities withdrew the complaint in September.
Internet access was widely available in urban areas and used by citizens, including through a government program to provide limited free Wi-Fi access at 300,000 hotspots in cities and schools. The government also undertook an initiative to expand internet access to rural areas throughout the country. International monitoring groups estimated 46 million citizens (67 percent of the population) had access to the internet during the year.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The NCPO intervened to disrupt academic discussions on college campuses, intimidated scholars, and arrested student leaders critical of the coup. Universities also practiced self-censorship.
University authorities reported the regular presence of military personnel on campus, monitoring lectures and attending student events. There were numerous accounts of authorities arresting students for exercising freedom of speech and expression.
In February, six students and activists in Chiang Mai were charged with violating NCPO Order 3/2015 banning political gatherings of five or more people for their role in a February 14 prodemocracy rally at Chiang Mai University demanding elections in 2018. As of September the case was pending at the Office of the Prosecutor in Chiang Mai.
In August a group of university students filed a petition to the Prime Minister’s Office, through the Ministry of Education, objecting to the amendment of the Education Ministerial Regulations on Student Behavior. The proposed amendments expand the prohibition on gatherings from those that cause public disorder to include also gatherings that violate public morality.
The Polling Director of the National Institute for Development Administration resigned in January in protest, alleging the Institute had prohibited the release of poll results related to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan’s wristwatch scandal (see section 4).
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The 2017 constitution grants the freedom to assemble peacefully, subject to restrictions enacted to “protect public interest, peace and order, or good morals, or to protect the rights and liberties of others.” Nonetheless, NCPO orders, invoked under authority of Article 44 of the interim constitution and extended under the constitution, continued to prohibit political gatherings of five or more persons and penalize persons supporting any political gatherings.
According to a human rights advocacy group, the NCPO has moved away from disrupting public events, opting instead to charge event leaders and participants for violating NCPO orders and laws prohibiting gatherings and political activities. In September, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand announced police had ordered the club to cancel a scheduled panel discussion entitled “Will Myanmar’s Generals Ever Face Justice for International Crimes.” The club issued a statement noting this was the sixth event canceled by police order at the club since the 2014 coup.
In May police arrested 15 leaders and activists from the “We Want Elections” group for organizing a demonstration to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the 2014 coup. The group members were charged with sedition and violating the NCPO’s ban on political gatherings of five or more persons.
Surat Thani, Phuket, and Phang Nga Provinces have regulations that prohibit migrant workers–specifically persons from Cambodia, Burma, and Laos–from gathering in groups, while Samut Sakhon Province prohibits migrant gatherings of more than five persons. Authorities did not enforce these provisions strictly, particularly for gatherings on private property. Employers and NGOs may request permission from authorities for migrant workers to hold cultural gatherings.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The 2017 constitution grants individuals the right to free association subject to restrictions by law enacted to “protect public interest, peace and order, or good morals.”
The law prohibits the registration of a political party with the same name or logo as a legally dissolved party.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The 2017 constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions for “maintaining the security of the state, public peace and order or public welfare, town and country planning, or youth welfare.”
Following the 2014 coup, the NCPO issued orders prohibiting travel outside the country for approximately 155 persons, the majority of which it lifted in 2016. Nevertheless, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights Center (TLHR) estimated there were an additional 300 persons who, when summoned to appear before the NCPO following the 2014 coup, signed agreements as a condition of their release consenting not to travel abroad without NCPO approval. According to the TLHR, the NCPO had not revoked the restrictions contained in these agreements. The NCPO asserted the travel ban is the result of continuing litigation and not an NCPO initiated ban.
The government usually cooperated with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, although with some restrictions.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: In 2015 authorities confined in IDCs and shelters approximately 870 Rohingya and Bangladeshi persons who arrived in the country irregularly by boat during the mass movement in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in May 2015. As of September approximately 100 persons (mostly Rohingya) remained in detention.
Authorities continued to treat all refugees and asylum seekers who lived outside of designated border camps as illegal migrants. Persons categorized as illegal migrants are legally subject to arrest and detention. Although reinstated in 2013, authorities have not universally permitted bail for detained refugees and asylum seekers since 2016.
International humanitarian organizations noted concerns about congested conditions, lack of exercise opportunities, and limited freedom of movement in the IDCs.
In-country Movement: The government restricted the free internal movement of members of hill tribes and other minority groups who were not citizens but held government-issued identity cards. Authorities prohibited holders of such cards from traveling outside their home districts without prior permission from the district office or outside their home provinces without permission from the provincial governor. Offenders are subject to fines or a jail term of 45 to 60 days. Persons without cards may not travel at all. Human rights organizations reported police at inland checkpoints often asked for bribes in exchange for allowing stateless persons to move from one district to another.
Foreign Travel: Local authorities required resident noncitizens, including thousands of ethnic Shan and other non-hill-tribe minorities, to seek permission for foreign travel. A small number of nonregistered Burmese refugees, who were approved for third-country resettlement but not recognized as refugees by the government, waited for years for exit permits.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
The government’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers remained inconsistent. Nevertheless, authorities hosted significant numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, generally provided protection against their expulsion or return, and allowed persons fleeing fighting or other incidents of violence in neighboring countries to cross the border and remain until conflict ceased. Moreover, authorities permitted urban refugees recognized by UNHCR and registered camp-based Burmese refugees to resettle to third countries.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where they would face threats to their lives or freedom because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Outside the camps, government officials did not distinguish between asylum-seeking Burmese and other undocumented Burmese, regarding all as illegal migrants. However, if caught outside of camps without permission the authorities generally allowed registered and verified Burmese refugees to return to their camp. Other Burmese, if arrested in Thailand without refugee status or legal permission to be in Thailand, were often escorted back to the Burmese border. Authorities generally did not deport persons of concern holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status; however, one Cambodian UNHCR-recognized person of concern was returned in February, and others with protection concerns were forcibly returned to their home countries.
As part of an overall operation to reduce illegal immigrants and visa overstayers in the country, immigration police in Bangkok sometimes arrested and detained asylum seekers and refugees, including women and children. The government, however, has not deported any UNHCR-registered persons of concern from these groups. There were approximately 412 refugees and asylum seekers residing in IDCs as of December 10, and approximately 50 Uighurs have been detained in Thailand since 2015.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status. Burmese asylum seekers and refugees who reside outside official refugee camps are by law considered illegal migrants, as are all non-Burmese asylum seekers and refugees in the country if they do not hold a valid passport and visa. If arrested they are subject to indefinite detention at IDCs in Bangkok and other provinces.
UNHCR’s ability to provide protection to some groups of refugees outside the official camps remained limited. Its access to asylum seekers in the main IDC in Bangkok and at Suvarnabhumi International Airport to conduct status interviews and monitor new arrivals varied throughout the year. UNHCR had access to provincial IDCs where authorities detained ethnic Rohingya to conduct refugee status determinations. Authorities allowed resettlement countries to conduct processing activities in the IDCs, and humanitarian organizations were able to provide health care, nutritional support, and other humanitarian assistance.
The government allowed UNHCR to monitor the protection status of approximately 100,000 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers living in nine camps along the border with Burma. NGOs funded by the international community provided basic humanitarian assistance in the camps, including health care, food, education, shelter, water, sanitation, vocational training, and other services.
The government facilitated third-country resettlement for approximately 1,400 Burmese refugees from camps as of August. Refugees residing in the nine camps along the border who are not registered with the government were ineligible for third-country resettlement.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees residing in the nine refugee camps on the border with Burma had no freedom of movement, and authorities have confined them to the camps since the camps were established. A refugee apprehended outside the official camps is subject to possible harassment, fines, detention, deregistration, and deportation.
Refugees and asylum seekers were not eligible to participate in the official nationality-verification process, which allows migrant workers with verified nationality and passports to travel throughout the country.
Employment: The law prohibits refugees from working in the country. The government allowed undocumented migrant workers from neighboring Burma, Cambodia, and Laos to work legally in certain economic sectors if they registered with authorities and followed a prescribed process to document their status (see section 7.d.). The law allows victims of trafficking and witnesses who cooperate with pending court cases to work legally during and up to two years after the end of their trial involvement.
Access to Basic Services: The international community provided basic services for refugees living inside the nine camps on the border with Burma. For needs beyond primary care, a medical referral system allows refugees to seek other necessary medical services. For the urban refugee and asylum seeker population living in Bangkok, access to basic health services was minimal. Since 2014 two NGOs provided primary and mental health-care services. UNHCR coordinated referrals of the most urgent medical cases to local hospitals.
Since Burmese refugee children living in the camps generally did not have access to the government education system, NGOs continued to provide educational opportunities, and some were able to coordinate their curriculum with the Ministry of Education. In Bangkok some refugee communities formed their own schools to provide education for their children. Others sought to learn Thai with support from UNHCR, because the law provides that government schools must admit children of any legal status who can speak, read, and write Thai with some degree of proficiency.
Temporary Protection: The government continued to extend temporary protection status to the migrants of Rohingya and Bangladeshi origin who arrived during the 2015 maritime migration crisis in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
The government continued to identify stateless persons, provide documentation to preclude statelessness, and open paths to citizenship for long-time residents. An estimated 470,000 persons, mainly residing in the northern region, were likely stateless or at risk of statelessness, including persons from Burma who did not have evidence of Burmese citizenship, ethnic minorities registered with civil authorities, and previously undocumented minorities.
The government pledged to attain zero statelessness by 2024 and in 2016 approved a Cabinet resolution that provides a pathway to Thai nationality for approximately 80,000 stateless children and young adults. The resolution covers persons born in the country, whose parents are ethnic minorities, who are registered with the government, and who have resided in the country for a minimum of 15 years. The new resolution also applies to stateless youths certified by a state agency to have lived in the country for 10 years whose parentage is unknown.
Birth within the country does not automatically confer citizenship. The law bases citizenship on birth to at least one citizen parent, marriage to a male citizen, or naturalization. Individuals may also acquire citizenship by means of special government-designated criteria implemented by the Ministry of Interior with approval from the cabinet or in accordance with nationality law (see section 6, Children). Recent amendments to the law allow ethnic Thai stateless persons and their children, who meet the added definition of “displaced Thai,” to apply for the status of “Thai nationality by birth.”
The law stipulates every child born in the country receive an official birth certificate regardless of the parents’ legal status. Many parents did not obtain birth certificates for their children due to the complexity of the process, the need to travel from remote areas to district offices, and a lack of recognition of the importance of the document.
By law stateless members of hill tribes may not vote or own land, and their travel is restricted. Stateless persons also may not participate in certain occupations reserved for citizens, including farming, although authorities permitted noncitizen members of hill tribes to undertake subsistence agriculture. Stateless persons had difficulty accessing credit and government services, such as health care. Although education was technically accessible for all undocumented and stateless children, it was usually of poor quality. School administrators placed the term “non-Thai citizen” on these students’ high school certificates, which severely limited their economic opportunities. Some public universities charged stateless and undocumented students higher tuition rates than citizens.
Without legal status, stateless persons were particularly vulnerable to various forms of abuse (see section 6, Children and Indigenous People).