Thai authorities are using Covid-19 regulations as a convenient rationale to silence peaceful critics of the government.
On the evening of May 13, Bangkok police arrested prominent pro-democracy activist Anurak Jeantawanich for violating the ban on public assembly – one of the emergency measures imposed to prevent the coronavirus outbreak.
The arrest was triggered by a remembrance service that Anurak held earlier that day with about 40 supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship – known as the “Red Shirts” – demanding justice for those killed and wounded by the military during the crackdown on the 2010 political protests. Police accused Anurak of ignoring social distancing, acting in a way likely to spread the virus, and disobeying lawful orders by taking a group photo with participants at the event. If found guilty, Anurak faces 2 years in prison and a 40,000 baht (US$1,250) fine.
Police are also considering whether to arrest participants in other political activities marking the 10th anniversary of the Red Shirt protests.
International human rights law recognizes that in the context of a serious public health emergency, restrictions on some rights can be justified when they are strictly necessary, proportionate to achieve the objective, and are neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application. But Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha declared a state of emergency on March 24 that gave the authorities a free hand to censor free speech. Since then, dissenting voices and critical opinions about the government’s Covid-19 response by the media, medical personnel, and the general public have been stifled.
On March 16, a group of United Nations human rights experts said “emergency declarations based on the Covid-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health … and should not be used simply to quash dissent.”
The abusive Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation empowers Thai authorities to act well beyond the public health threats posed by the virus, and they are threatening disproportionate punishments for politically motivated reasons. The decree should urgently be repealed or drastically revised.