BANGKOK — Considering the trouble she’s facing, no regret can be detected from the voice or face of human rights lawyer Sirikan “June” Charoensiri when she explains why last year she refused to let police search her car and remove her activist clients’ phones and files.
Nine months after Sirikan refused to let police seize phones and files belonging to 14 pro-democracy activists, prompting officers to fence off her car, the 30-year-old lawyer now says she is a victim of judicial harassment only for insisting on the letter of the law.
“That night I didn’t surrender them because there was no guarantee whatsoever as to what may be done to the electronic devices,” she said. “I would only do so when there’s a court order.”
Last month the lawyer, popularly known as “Attorney June” or Thanai June, has been charged with refusing to comply with an officer’s order and concealing evidence from the incident in the early hours of June 27.
After walling off her car, officers later returned with a warrant and got the phones and files they were after. But Sirikan said that if she had yielded to the demand that night, she would not have been able to face her clients.
“This still enabled me to see [my clients] without worries and with no regret. I did my best,” she said.
One of those clients, Rangsiman Rome of the New Democracy Movement, said she’s too modest.
“I can’t imagine what the protection of human rights and freedom would be like without attorney June and [Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.] The situation would have become more severe with no one to depend on,” the Thammasat University law student said. “The junta doesn’t really pay attention to whether the accused have proper access to legal rights or not.”
As a result, Sirikan was summoned by police Feb. 2 to faces charges that could see her imprisoned for years. Images of her emerging Feb. 9 from the Chanasongkram Police Station where she was processed flashing 10 ink-stained fingers further elevated her stature among those opposing the junta.
Hashtag #TeamJune soon went viral, but Sirikan said she prefers working in the courtroom to defend her clients to being in the spotlight. But she understands that things have changed.
The International Commission of Jurists, which is comprised of 60 judges and lawyers around the world and where June apprenticed, called on Thai authorities to immediately drop the criminal proceedings against her.
“The charges against Sirikan Charoensiri apparently relate to her efforts to protect the legal and human rights of her clients, students who never should have faced arrest or criminal proceedings for peacefully exercising their freedoms of expression and assembly in the first place,” said Matt Pollard of ICJ’s Centre for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers. “Prosecuting Sirikan Charoensiri for her efforts to defend human rights is totally unacceptable and will only put Thailand further in violation of its international obligations.”
Sirikan said the rule of law is under assault.
“I feel everything’s turned upside down. I act on behalf of others, but my ability to carry out those duties has been removed through this judicial harassment process. I didn’t just feel threatened alone, but it’s the profession itself that has been threatened. The principles have been compromised.”
The Woman From Yasothon
Sirikan hails from a middle-class family in Yasothon, which is known for its khit pillows, rocket festival and being one of the kingdom’s poorest provinces. Her father ran a law office, though he wasn’t a lawyer, while her mother is a school teacher. By 15, Sirikan was accepted to Bangkok’s prestigious Triam Udom Suksa School and even won an American Field Service scholarship to spend a year at the Milwaukee School of Languages in Wisconsin.
First wanting to study a foreign language at Chulalongkorn University, Sirikan ended up studying law at Thammasat University after volunteering in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in the south. She assisted displaced Morken people, a group of indigenous sea nomads around the Andaman Sea. By chance, one Morken was allegedly assaulted by an army officer who accused him of theft, and a senior volunteer told her how legal knowledge could help with such cases.
A streak of rebellion was apparent. She spent two weeks volunteering in Phang Nga province without permission from her teachers. Punishment was averted by a timely news item about the work of a Good Samaritan student from a famous school.
Sirikan said she never gave much thought to practicing private business law despite it being much more lucrative than human rights. Her rationale is quite utilitarian.
“I discovered that if I am going to have to work hard and put so much dedication in anyway, I would rather not just serve one client,” she said. “I want my sweat and heart to benefit the many.”
Rise of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights
If not for the coup of May 2014, Sirikan’s life would have probably been less public and more predictable. In late 2013, the studious young lawyer had just completed her master’s degree in International Human Rights Law with merit from the University of Essex as a scholar of the joint Japan-World Bank scholarship.
Upon returning from the United Kingdom, Sirikan began working for ICJ as national legal consultant on Thailand, preparing legal memoranda on situations of enforced disappearances and human rights violations in Thailand. She co-wrote a report “Ten Years Without Truth: Somchai Neelapaijit and Enforced Disappearances in Thailand.”
But then came the coup on May 22, 2014.
Human rights lawyers, Sirikan included, met in secret almost immediately after the coup to discuss what they can do as more people were being “summoned” by the National Council for Peace and Order, the formal name of the junta, to be detained and have their attitudes “adjusted’ without charge.
That was the beginning of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, or TLHR.
“I co-founded TLHR in May 2014 right after the coup, before leaving the ICJ in May 2015 to work full time here. There was no hesitation in setting up TLHR, but I decided to quit the ICJ after realizing that I can’t keep working at two places at the same time, and TLHR needed me full time,” she said. “My work is still the same. What changed is the political situation, however.”
Unbeknownst to the interviewer, Sirikan’s said her first assignment was to accompany a fellow rights lawyer, Arnon Nampa, to represent this journalist when he was first summoned and detained by the military junta without charge for a week on May 25, 2014.
The group first thought their work and existence would only be fleeting, on an ad hoc basis, but it’s been nearly two years since the junta took over and there’s little sign that TLHR will be able to disperse anytime soon.
“We first thought we would be around for two to three months, but then we realized [the junta] is here for the long haul,” she said.
Life has become more uncertain for Sirikan. Her old Honda had to be replaced after it became the subject of so much news, and she tried to remain private. Sirikan said she now takes precautions while commuting to the office in Bangkok’s Saphan Khwai area.
While the junta urges citizens to be law-abiding, Sirikan’s view of law differs markedly.
“Law must be legitimate. Not everything can passed as law,” she said, adding that legal restrictions must be balanced with rights protections and due process.
In this regard, the junta’s ban on political gathering of five or more persons is questionable:
“I see it as an order that’s against human rights principles.”
And the junta granting its members immunity from the crime of overthrowing a duly elected government?
“It’s really evil for those who seized power to absolve themselves from any responsibility,” she said.
The ongoing use of military courts against civilians charged with security-related violations, reminds Sirikan that things are not only unfair but also a sign of the military regime’s insecurity.
“It means they’re still unable to control the situation. And we all continue to demand an end to it. We’re under military rule and this is something we simply cannot accept,” she said.