Thailand, One Week After the Bombings. Is Another Free Speech Crackdown Coming?

One week ago, a bomb killed 20 people at a busy shrine in the center of Bangkok. Speculations about possible suspects are rife, spreading confusion in a nation already in the midst of political turmoil. The bombing, unprecedented in recent Thai history, poses a challenge to the military junta that seized power last year and attempts to stabilize itself through crackdown on dissent and controversial reforms.

Among the controversial reforms is Thailand’s new assembly law, which took effect the week before the bombing. The law places heightened restrictions on public demonstrations. Protesters must get permission from the police at least 24 hours in advance, cannot hold demonstrations within 150 meters of key government buildings, and must not disrupt activities at government offices, airports, seaports, train and bus stations, hospitals, schools and transportation stops.

Placing regulations on protests isn’t by itself a human rights violation. Regulations control what can potentially be inconvenient disturbances to the public order and the daily lives of citizens not associated with the demonstrations.

“Every lunchtime there were demonstrations,” said Apisara Powintara in an interview. Last year, she worked at a hotel management company in Siam Square, a central shopping district and one of the most congested areas in the capital city. “I took the Skytrain [Bangkok’s elevated rail network], but for those who drove cars, the protests must have been more annoying.”

Public protests intensified on the square when the current administration seized control in a military coup d’etat in May 2014.

But as journalist Saksith Saiyasombut points out, what matters are the circumstances and motivations behind the creation of these restrictions, and whether the citizens had a say in the new assembly law.

Political protests are as common in Thailand as its government turnovers. Since its establishment in 1932, Thailand’s constitutional monarchy has undergone a dozen coups and a new constitution every four years, roughly speaking. The monarchy, which enjoys the backing of the military, has remained stable throughout the turbulence — King Bhumibol is the world’s longest-reigning monarch — but by contrast, the considerably weaker civilian government has come and gone, and come and gone again.

Amid the list of temporary rulers, Thaksin Shinawatra is worth mentioning. The former telecom billionaire was elected as prime minister in 2001 in a landslide victory, appealing to the rural masses with a populist platform. In 2006, he was ousted by the military, backed by massive street protests loosely composed of ultra-nationalists and the upper middle class. Today, Thailand’s divided political protests follow a traceable pattern with Thaksin in the center of the division.

“This law will be strictly enforced to prevent the type of nuisance and violence that happened in the past,” the current prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, told reporters on the new Public Assembly Act. “It’s not possible to have it all — happiness, equality, democracy — without giving us the tools.”

Most likely, the law is intended to secure more than happiness, equality, and democracy — imposing restrictions on free assembly has been a typical tool, and one of the many tools, that new Thai governments implement to solidify control. Since the Royal Thai Police proposed the bill last August, the first reading of the law was approved unanimously by the rubber-stamp parliament and passed with no public input.

“This law violates the rights of the people. We want this act revoked,” said Nutchapakorn Nummueng, a representative of a legal watchdog group called iLaw.

In an interview with local media before the enactment of the law, a protester from an environmentalist group didn’t seem too fazed. “I don’t think we will be affected much,” said Sakkamon Seangdara. “We simply demonstrate peacefully and cause no fuss to anyone not involved…. If we’re caught, we will just have to fight [through the courts]. It’s as simple as that.”
General Prayuth is promising to restore democracy in Thailand, but concerns are growing as the military junta pushes forth a new constitution while suggesting that the general elections might be delayed until 2017 if the constitution is not passed.

It remains to be seen, whether the recent bombing in Bangkok will be used as a pretext for the interim government to strengthen its crackdown on free assembly and speech.