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Thailand: Junta to End Prosecutions of Dissidents in Military Courts

(Sept. 20, 2016) Thailand’s ruling junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), announced on September 12, 2016, that it will no longer try cases involving threats to national security and insults against the monarchy in military courts, a measure that has been in place since the military seized power in the country in 2014. (Amy Sawitta Lefevre et al., Thai Junta Will Stop Prosecuting Dissidents in Military Courts, REUTERS (Sept. 12, 2016).) The order revokes the three prior orders, Nos. 37/2557, 3/2558, and 13/2559, that had established the use of the military courts for national security and lèse-majesté cases. (NCPO Order No. 55/2559, 133 GOVERNMENT GAZETTE, Special Part 2004 (Sept. 12, 2559 [2016]) (in Thai); Thailand: No New Military Trials of Civilians (Sept. 13, 2016), HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH.)

The order, signed by Prayth Chan-ocha, the junta chief, stated that because of “an improving situation and cooperation from the public for the past two years” such charges would be prosecuted in civilian courts instead. (Lefevre et al., supra.) However, according to Human Rights Watch, the order “is not retroactive and does not affect the more than 1,000 cases already brought against civilians in military courts. The military also retains authority to arrest, detain, and interrogate civilians without safeguards against abuse or accountability for human rights violations.” (Thailand: No New Military Trials of Civilians, supra.)

Reportedly, in the aftermath of the military takeover, “there has been a sharp rise in the number of prosecutions for dissent and royal insult … with the junta opting to try such cases in military courts,” and with students and democracy activists also being tried in those courts for sedition for protesting military rule. (Thai Junta Will Stop Prosecuting Dissidents in Military Courts, supra.)

Relevant Provisions of Law

Article 112 of the Criminal Code of Thailand states: “[w]hoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-Apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” (Criminal Code B.E. 2499 (1956, as amended up to 2003), THAI LAWS.) The current Constitution states, moreover, “[t]he King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action.” (Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (as of Apr. 17, 2015), CONSTITUTIONNET website.) The draft Constitution that was adopted by a referendum held on August 7, 2016, retains this provision. (Draft Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand 2016 (unofficial English translation, § 6; see also Constance Johnson, Thailand: New Constitution Approved in Referendum (Aug. 10, 2016).)

Human Rights Watch View

The new order, however, has been met with skepticism by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. The groups Asia Director, Brad Adams, stated, “[n]o one should be fooled by the Thai junta’s sleight of hand” just before Thailand’s Universal Periodic Review before the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva this September. (Alexandra Farone, Thailand Junta to Stop Prosecuting Dissidents in Military Courts, PAPER CHASE (Sept. 14, 2016); Thailand: No New Military Trials of Civilians, supra.)