Thai junta under pressure as lid on politics stays

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN Desk) – Scandal dogs military rulers as campaigners call for lifting of ban on free expression ahead of election promised for November next year    

Pressure is mounting on Thailand’s ruling junta over brewing scandals and repeated postponement of a return to elections. Public impatience with military rule spiked this month after Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan was pictured wearing a watch worth up to US$300,000 plus expensive diamond ring. The junta seized power in May 2014 with a promise to end corruption it said was endemic in the elected Yingluck administration, but after three years in power is now facing similar allegations. 
Prawit was already facing public anger for appearing to dismiss the death of an Army cadet whose family allege was fatally beaten by commanding officers. 
After initially promising an election in 2015, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha extended his “road map to democracy” before announcing in October that Thailand would return to the polls in November 2018. The funeral of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October ended a year of official mourning, but the ban on politics remains in place amid rumours that Prayut is seeking to retain his grip on power after the election. The junta-drafted Constitution enshrines wide-ranging powers for an unelected Senate, including a say in choosing the prime minister. 
A public poll conducted last week found that most people view the Constitution as a tool used by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to prolong its time in power. 
   Prominent Thai campaigners on Sunday accused the NCPO junta of eroding civil rights and basic freedoms. Marking Human Rights Day they said the most severe human rights violation was the lack of freedom of expression, before pleading with the NCPO to restore democracy and normal civil rights.
National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) commissioner and human rights defender Angkhana Neelaphaijit said that though the government claimed to cherish human rights, it was enforcing laws and regulations that in fact constituted a human rights crisis. She cited conflicts over harmful projects and government policies, such as coal-fired power plant projects in the South and forestland reclamation policies, signifying the government’s lack of understanding of human rights principles. The most severe human rights violation by this government regarded freedom of expression, which had been stifled by many NCPO orders and law, she said. She cited NCPO order 3/2558, which grants military officers the power to conduct raids and arrest people without permission from a court and prohibits public gatherings of more than five people.  
“Freedom of expression must return or we cannot resume the democratic administration of the country, as human rights principles and democracy are interrelated and cannot exist without each other,” Angkhana said. 
Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, Cross Cultural Foundation director, agreed that freedom of expression needed to be restored first so that people’s other rights could then follow and the junta could return democracy to the people. 
“Freedom of expression is a basic right for everyone, but right now there are many laws that oppress this right and many people are prosecuted just for expressing their opinions,” Pornpen said. She said there were serious rights violations regarding natural resources management, which was a major problem in Thailand, made worse by a lack of freedom of expression. Examples included a recent crackdown on peaceful demonstrations against the Thepa coal-fired power plant last month and lawsuits against environmental campaigners across the country, which were clear statements that people did not have the right to campaign freely. 

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