Judiciary Legitimized Coup and Supported Junta, Thai Lawyers Allege

Veteran Redshirt activist Sombat Boonngamanong was denied release on bail by military judges on June 12, 2014. They said he posed a threat to national security.

BANGKOK — A rights organization accused Thailand’s judiciary of legitimizing the 2014 coup d’etat in a report published Saturday.

In its critical report entitled “Legal ‘Miracle’: The Judiciary and May 22, 2014 Military Coup,” Thai Lawyers for Human Rights made the case that the judiciary played an instrumental role in legitimizing and propping up the 2014 coup-makers.

It said the courts did this by proactively legitimizing their rule and denying citizens legal protections to oppose the junta.

Court of Justice spokesman Suebpong Sripongkul had not responded to messages left seeking comment as of late Tuesday afternoon. A senior judge who wished to remain anonymous for fear of negative repercussions said he largely agreed with its conclusions but said praising it publicly could risk his job.

The Thai-language report, released to mark three years of military rule, is remarkable for its take on the judiciary, which is shielded from criticism by the law.

No author’s name was attached to the report beyond Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a group of lawyers formed after the May 2014 coup to offer legal representation to those who allege their rights were violated under military rule.

In its report, the organization said judicial reforms were necessary for the courts to legitimately defend liberty, civil rights and the rule of law under a democratic system.

The report said the roles played by the judicial institutions since the coup clearly demonstrate that the coup-makers cannot establish a political order by merely relying on the threat of force.

“It is pertinent that the power of the judiciary works in tandem with military power in order to legitimize and support the power of the coup-makers and the legal system of the coup-making order,” the report said.

It added that a veneer of legality is crucial for the junta’s survival.

“In the modern era, it is necessary for a governing system that stemmed from a military coup to erase the image of autocratic rule by military leaders and transform the use of naked power through the barrel of the gun into the use of power in accordance with the ‘law,’ which is a universal value at present,” the report reads.

Despite this, it said “military dictatorship continues to rule at will, without scrutiny and full of severe human rights violations.”

The rights group said the courts were quick to rule that the coup-makers held sovereignty and were thus legitimate. The report cites legal challenges made by pro-democracy activist Sombat Boonngam-anong that an order he appear right after the coup was illegitimate, as those behind it were yet to be endorsed by His Majesty the King. The challenge was later thrown out on appeal in 2016, with the court ruling the coup had succeeded and the issue of royal endorsement inappropriately violated the monarchy’s apolitical position. The report noted that the ruling didn’t substantiate how the coup was deemed a success.

As for the judiciary’s roles in denying citizens’ rights, the report alleged that it refused to scrutinize the legality of the junta’s actions and therefore shirked its obligation to be a check on the executive and legislative branches of government.

On May 22, 2015, the first anniversary of the coup, a group called Resistant Citizens petitioned the Criminal Court of First Instance to charge junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha with treason. Seven days later, the case was thrown out. The court’s rationale was that although power was seized “through undemocratic means,” the coup-makers’ interim military charter of 2014 retroactively indemnified themselves of any legal wrongdoing.

As for the plaintiff’s petition that doing so was unlawful, the matter still awaits a ruling by the Supreme Court.

The report cited that the same reactions greet any challenge to the use of junta leader’s absolute power under Article 44 of the now-defunct interim constitution of 2014.

‘Lawful’ Repression and Prosecution

The report includes figures on the legal consequences for those who have those opposed military rule.

In the roughly three years since the coup through to last month, 242 people have been charged with violating the junta’s ban on political gatherings, according to the report. Between the same period, it said 69 people have been charged with sedition for offering mostly peaceful resistance.

Meanwhile, the same period saw at least 138 people charged with lese majeste. The report said the law has been interpreted more broadly since the coup and the penalties have increased, with sentences getting longer and in some cases doubling.

“After the coup, the law has become a tool used by state officials to bar people from expressing themselves or making political speech,” it said.

It cites a number of cases, including one involving insult to the king who ruled from 1590 to 1602, as examples of the law’s expanded use beyond protecting the immediate king, queen, regent and heir apparent, as defined in the Penal Code.