BANGKOK — Thailand's military government has disputed an international watchdog's decision to downgrade Thailand in an annual report on freedom around the globe released today.
According to the US-based organization Freedom House, Thailand is "Not Free," alongside neighboring countries like Myanmar, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The Kingdom was ranked "Free" from 1999 to 2005, and "Partially Free" for the past eight years.
Freedom House attributed Thailand's plunge in political rights and civil liberties to "the May military coup, whose leaders abolished the 2007 constitution and imposed severe restrictions on speech and assembly."
A map from Freedom House's 2015 report on freedom around the globe.
The report noted that the Thai junta, officially titled the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has imposed martial law, banned public protests, intimidated the press, trampled on academic freedom, tried dissidents in military courts, and aggressively enforced lese majeste, a law that criminalizes criticism of the Thai monarchy.
"Aggressive enforcement of Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws since the 2006 coup has created widespread anxiety and stifled freedom of expression online, in print and broadcast media, and at public events," the report reads. "The charges have been used to target activists, scholars, students, journalists, foreign authors, and politicians; they are also used by individuals against fellow citizens."
The report also noted that the junta’s government has already faced two corruption scandals: one involving the purchase of overpriced microphones, and the other regarding the personal wealth of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s cabinet members.
"Critics questioned how 25 of the 33 cabinet members had become dollar millionaires when many had long served as public servants with modest salaries," the report says.
It is the first time Thailand has been rated as "Not Free" since 2007, when the Kingdom was under the administration of a military-appointed government that followed the 2006 coup.
However, Pilaipan Sombatsiri, chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, disputed Freedom House's reading of the situation in Thailand.
In a press conference today, Pilaipan argued that Freedom House cannot rate Thailand as unfree or undemocratic "because the people are happy. They can live their lives normally."
"It depends on what Thai people think," Pilaipan said. "Don't let the outside world interfere with your thoughts too much."
This afternoon, military officials canceled an event on media freedom organized by a German NGO due to "sensitive" content, a representative from the group said.
The timing of Freedom House's report has also coincided with renewed pressure from the United States government to lift martial law and end restrictions on freedom of speech.
"We are concerned about the significant restraints on freedoms since the coup," said US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel Russel, during a public lecture in Bangkok on 26 January. "Ending martial law throughout the country and removing restrictions of speech and assembly – these would be important steps as part of genuinely inclusive reform process that reflects the broad diversity of views within the country."
Russel was the highest-level US official to visit Thailand since the 22 May coup. His speech has drawn heavy criticism from the junta and pro-coup Thais who accuse the US of interfering in Thailand's domestic issues.