BANGKOK — Anti-coup activists disrupted an award ceremony organized by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) this morning to protest the agency's perceived apathy in the face of human rights abuses following the 22 May coup.
NHRC chairperson Amara Pongsapitchaya was scheduled to hand awards to a number of people and organisations at the Government Complex in Bangkok today to honour their "exceptional contribution to human rights" in Thailand.
Just before Amara presented the award to a representative from the student activist group Dao Din, several other activists stormed the stage and criticised Amara for her failure to challenge the military junta's repression in Thailand.
Other activists simultaneously moved to the front of the stage and held signs ridiculing the NHRC's weak response to the coup.
"You are fired, NHRC," one sign read. Another mockingly asked, "Are you still alive, Amara?"
Security officers then attempted to escort activists off the stage, but Amara agreed to accept their letter of complaint.
Dao Din made headlines in Thailand when five of its members staged an anti-coup protest in front of Thai junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha while he was giving a speech in Khon Kaen province on 19 November.
However, the group's opposition to the military coup was not cited by the NHRC in its award statement; rather, the NHRC awarded Dao Din for other campaigns related to social and environmental issues.
More commotion took place when the Dao Din representative flashed the "three-finger salute" on stage after receiving the award from Amara. The gesture was adopted as a symbol of coup resistance from the Hunger Games film trilogy in late May.
The student also read a statement from Dao Din vowing to boycott any of the junta’s "reconciliation" or "reform" forums, which the group deems "illegitimate."
"We will organise our own 'people's forum' to voice the frustration of the people," said Payu Boonsopon. "We also oppose martial law because it violates the rights of the people."
Today’s protest was led by the Thai Student Centre for Democracy (TSCD). One of the protesters was Natcha Kong-udom, a first-year student at Bangkok University who was arrested in front of a cinema in Bangkok on 20 November for flashing the forbidden "three-finger salute."
Sirawit Seritiwat, a core TSCD activist, said the group did not intend to "disrupt" the award ceremony.
"We only wanted to organise a symbolic resistance to the coup," Sirawit explained.
Students from TSCD and Dao Din flash the forbidden "three-finger salute" after the NHRC award ceremony, 12 Dec 2014.
The NHRC has come under fire for its half-hearted rebuke of the 22 May military coup and the junta’s subsequent crackdown on freedom of expression.
The commission's responses are a stark contrast to other international human rights agencies, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, which have repeatedly criticised the junta’s suspension of civil liberties.
In her speech at the award ceremony today, Amara did not explicitly criticise the junta’s ongoing ban on political expression, only noting that activists and the junta view human rights differently.
"The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) thinks we have to sacrifice personal rights to protect the rights of all citizens, while the anti-coup faction believes personal rights and political rights cannot be infringed at all," Amara said.
"This debate will continue for the next several years," she said. "We have to exercise our judgment about individual rights. Sometimes we may have to lose some personal rights for the sake of public rights."
The rest of her speech focused on the need to tackle issues of discrimination and inequality in Thailand.
Amara with student activists after the NHRC award ceremony on 12 Dec 2014
Amara later met with the anti-coup protesters and told them that the NHRC is doing "its best" to defend human rights.
Critics of the NHRC accuse the agency of harbouring a bias against the Redshirt movement, which supported the former government toppled in the coup.
The NHRC's 2013 report about the military crackdown on Redshirt protesters in 2010, which left over 90 people dead, was slammed by Redshirt supporters and human rights activists for its glaring omission of security officers' use of force against unarmed protesters.
According to the NHRC narrative, Redshirt protesters "violated human rights" by staging a protest in downtown Bangkok, which "forced" the government at the time to enact emergency laws and send in armed troops to disperse the rallies.
Since seizing power in May, Thailand's military junta – known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – has banned all political activity in the name of restoring peace and order after months of protests crippled the nation's capital.
Those found guilty of violating the NCPO's ban on political protests have been sent to face trial in martial court, where they can be sentenced to up to six months in prison and are not permitted to appeal.
The junta has also intimidated the media, blocked academic forums, and granted security forces sweeping authority over civilian matters under martial law, which exempts the military from liability over any damages.