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Arbitrary detention, once again, in Thailand

If madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome, the authors of Thailand’s twelfth coup since the absolute monarchy have yet to learn from Einstein’s aphorism.

Groundhog Day in Bangkok: a protester confronts the army after the coup. Lillian Suwanrumpha / Demotix. All rights reserved.

Your name is read out during a broadcast of several minutes which interrupts the already-slim national line-up of permitted television programming in post-coup Thailand. A knock on your door and tens of soldiers come into your house to search for materials critical of the junta or the monarchy, and to seize electronic communication material.  A letter is sent to the university department where you are a student or a professor and your name is among those singled out. An unknown number calls you several times at strange times of the day and night.

These are the ways in which targets of Thailand’s military junta, the National Council on Peace and Order (NCPO), have been notified of their impending arbitrary detention in the past week. Led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army, and acting in the name of nebulous “reform”, on 22 May the NCPO carried out the twelfth successful coup in Thailand since the end of the absolute monarchy in June 1932. Building on restrictions put in place by the declaration of martial law two days before the coup, the NCPO has clamped down on media freedom, outlawed protest and political discussion and begun arresting those it deems its opponents. The junta claims to have summoned 253 people, while human rights activists instead have counted more than 300.

Taken anywhere

The NCPO has refused to name the locations where people are detained. Under martial law, any person can be detained for up to seven days without the authorities needing to bring formal charges or present any evidence. Detention can take place at irregular places of detention, including military bases or any place that the junta so designates. For those who are summoned via public broadcast, one is supposed to report to the Army Club on Thewet Road in Bangkok but then one can be taken anywhere.

This was the case with Thanapol Eawsakul, a writer and editor of the progressive Same Sky magazine and press, Surapot Taweesak, a philosophy lecturer and social critic who frequently writes about Buddhism, and Pravit Rojanaphruk, a journalist for the Nation newspaper, who were held for seven days on a military base in Ratchaburi province. Sukanya Prueksakasemsuk, a human-rights defender and the wife of Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, an editor serving 11 years for his role in publishing two articles alleged to contain anti-monarchy content, and her two children were detained following a raid on their house on 25 May. They were released after being questioned at the Army Club and then told “to refrain from giving interviews, joining any protest or expressing opinions in public for a while in order to maintain peace”.

It cited the detention of people on all sides of the political spectrum as a sign of fair and just behaviour.

Although those detained have included politicians from all sides of the political spectrum, ex-servicemen and businesspeople, the prime targets have been the journalists, writers, activists, teachers and students who dare to think differently from the establishment. In Mahasarakham, a province in the north-east, some critical university lecturers were summoned and told to assimilate the military’s message and instruct their students not to write messages on or offline that would propagate anti-coup ideas. There are additional cases of detention, particularly those in which summons have been informal—heralded by a telephone call or the arrival of a jeep full of soldiers—in which nothing is known about the conditions, location or duration of detention.

All those released must sign a statement asserting that they were not coerced, beaten, tortured or otherwise harmed. They may not attend political meetings, participate in political movements or leave the country without permission of the junta chief, General Prayuth. The penalty for violating these conditions is the same as that for not responding to a summons: up to two years in prison and/or a 40,000 baht fine.

Despite the spectre of the prison term or fine, not all those summoned have reported. While the junta’s spokesperson insists that detainees will be treated well, neither the treatment of detainees in southern Thailand, where martial law has been in force for over ten years, nor the junta’s unwillingness to be transparent about places of detention inspires much confidence. When asked if detainees could have lawyers, Colonel Winthai Suntharee said that there was no need for detainees to have lawyers, as they were not offenders. The question a reporter might then ask—were probing questions also not forbidden by the junta—is why then do people need to be detained?

Nothing new

Coups are nothing new in Thailand. The tally is nineteen (including seven failed attempts) since the end of the absolute monarchy. Arbitrary detention has also recurred frequently in recent Thai history, at times as part of the repressive state apparatus put in place by a zealous authoritarian leader or junta after the coup. During the regime (1958-1973) of Field Marshals Sarit Thanarat and Thanom Kittikhachorn, individuals deemed “hooligans” could be detained for indefinitely renewable periods of ninety days. Following the 6 October 1976 massacre at Thammasat University and the coup by the National Administrative Reform Council, the junta issued an order permitting arbitrary detention of those deemed a ”danger to society”, including anyone with dissentient ideas.

The orders permitting arbitrary detention of “hooligans” and “dangers to society” were respectively revoked several years after they were promulgated. Both times, a note was appended to the nullification law explaining that arbitrary detention was an abuse of state power. In the former case, in 1974, the note said that the orders contained “provisions that are inappropriate and incompatible with a democratic system”. When the latter were annulled, in 1979, the note said that the orders and the practices they engendered were themselves a danger to society.

Just over a week after the coup, the junta announced that it was considering setting up “reconciliation centres” to promote peace and harmony. It cited the detention of people on all sides of the political spectrum as a sign of fair and just behaviour. Yet summons to report to the military read out over public broadcast, unannounced raids and arrests and compulsory conversations with soldiers create fear and terror, not co-operation.

How long will it be before the NCPO also realises, like its predecessors, that arbitrary detention is not only a derogation of Thailand’s obligations as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but can never be a component of a programme of “reform” or the promotion of peace and harmony, let alone democracy? The courageous citizens who continue to protest in the streets, in defiance of martial law—who themselves risk detention—already recognise this. General Prayuth ought to listen to them. 

About the author

Tyrell Haberkorn is a fellow in political and social change at the Australian National University. She is the author of Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law and Violence in Northern Thailand and is writing a history of impunity for state violence in post-absolutist Thailand.


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