BANGKOK – The Thai junta’s rubber-stamp parliament has unanimously approved the first draft of a bill that would restrict political demonstrations in Thailand.
The bill, named the Public Rallies Act, was approved today in a 182-0 vote by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), whose members were hand-picked by the ruling junta.
The bill will now go to a 22-member subcommittee before it returns to the assembly for a second vote one month from now.
According to a draft of the bill, public rallies will required to be peaceful and respect the "boundary of rights and liberties ascribed by the Constitution."
If approved and enforced, the act will also place the following restrictions on protests:
- The area within a 150-meter radius of any royal palace and residences of guests who are formally invited by the Royal Thai Family will be declared off-limits to any protest.
- No protest can take place in the premises of the Government House, Parliament, and courts, except with approval from relevant state agencies.
- The Commander of the Royal Thai Police has the power to declare the area within 50-meter radius of the Government House, Parliament, and courts off-limits to any protest.
- Organizers of potential rallies are required to alert authorities at least 24 hours before the demonstrations take place. They are required to state the purpose, date, time, and place of the rallies.
- Security officers can obtain orders from courts to disperse rallies in which "demonstrators commit any act of violence that may cause danger to the lives and property of others, and lead to chaos in the country."
- In the event of an order to declare any area off-limit to protests, violators face a maximum jail term of 10 years.
Speaking to the assembly before the vote this morning, NLA member and Thammasat University rector Somkid Lertpaitoon said he supported the bill, but had some reservations.
"It's good that the government is trying to pass this bill, after the troubles about political rallies in the past 10 years," he said. "[But] this law does give a large opening to the judgment of security officers. Therefore, security officers have to uphold the principle of peaceful and unarmed assembly, because it is the right of the people."
He also pointed to a Constitutional Court verdict in 2006 that ruled against requiring citizens to ask permission to protest in public . The court ruled that such a law would violate the constitutional provision on freedom of assembly.
"I am not sure how much the verdict of the Constitutional Court will affect this law," Somkid said.
Anti-government protesters rally in Bangkok in November 2013.
Deputry Prime Minister Visanu Krue-ngam assured the NLA that details of the law can be amended by the sub-committee. He also assured the lawmakers that security officers will be trained in crowd control and required to enforce the law fairly.
"This law isn't a perfect tool," Visanu said. "Some people were asking, will there be still be rallies under this law? Let me answer that rallies will still take place. But the rallies will be more orderly."
The NLA then unanimously voted to pass the bill.
For much of the last decade, Thailand has been rocked by mass protests organized by rival political factions known as the Redshirts, mostly composed of rural poor who support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the Yellowshirts, a loose coalition of royalists and traditional elites who revile Thaksin his political camp.
The protests have occasionally turned deadly during clashes between the two groups and encounters with security forces. The bloodiest episode occurred in 2010, when more than 90 people were killed during a military crackdown on Redshirt protests from March to May of that year.
More recently, nearly 30 people lost their lives during the six months of anti-government protests staged by Yellowshirts that culminated in a military coup on 22 May 2014.
Public protests are currently outlawed under martial law by the ruling military junta, though in practice the ban is only strictly applied to anti-coup and pro-democracy activities.