BANGKOK — Defying police orders to cancel a talk on the state of human rights in Thailand, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) held a press conference outside the venue where they were originally scheduled to present a panel discussion this evening.
The letter, which police said they were instructed to deliver on the junta’s behalf, expressed concern that the event "may allow individuals with ill intention to create a [negative] situation and cause unrest, and lead to a violation of the laws."
However, representatives from TLHR decided to go to the FCCT at 6pm today as planned, and hold a press conference outside of the venue, where they distributed their 21-page report detailing the decline of human rights since the May 2014 coup.
“We insist that we didn’t break any laws, so we decided to go ahead with the press conference today,” TLHR member Yaowalak Anuphan told reporters and plain-clothed officers, who listened and took photos but did not interfere.
She said police never contacted her about today's cancelation, but that army officers called her a few days ago to say they were “uncomfortable” with the event.
Since seizing power in a coup in May 2014, Thailand’s military junta has maintained a ban on all political gatherings, protests, and forums in the name of achieving "national reconciliation." Detractors, especially those who criticize the junta, are often arrested and some have been sent to face trial in martial court.
“The [junta] is using laws to suppress those who think differently,” Yaowalak said, citing the trial of pro-democracy activists in military court, and the junta’s repeated attempts to smother free speech. Today marked the 72nd time authorities have interfered with political forums since the coup, she said.
Poonthep Sirinupong, a law professor at Thammasat University who was supposed to speak on the panel, commented that putting the junta’s new charter to a referendum will be useless in a climate where free speech is so severely restricted.
“Holding a referendum under these circumstances is like binding the hands of the people,” he said.
The current draft of the charter, which was written to replace the constitution shredded by the junta after the coup, has been widely criticized by politicians and rights activists as a significant step backwards for Thai democracy.
Bowing to pressure from pro-democracy voices, the junta agreed last month to put the charter to a referendum vote, but has not yet specified what options will be made available on the ballot.
In the referendum for Thailand's previous charter, which was also drafted by a junta-appointed council following the 2006 coup, voters were only permitted to accept or decline the document. Critics say that many voters reluctantly approved the junta’s charter out of fear that the undisclosed alternative would be worse.
Speaking to Khaosod English after the lawyers’ press conference tonight, FCCT president Jonathan Head said the club was “very sorry the event had to be cancelled,” but was forced to comply with police’s orders.
“We had no choice,” he said, adding that the board refused to cancel the event until a formal letter was presented.