The United Nations has condemned a decision by the Thai junta to cancel an event hosted by human rights campaigners at Thailand's Foreign Correspondence Club (FCCT) in Bangkok.
The move, along with other clampdowns on activists, indicates a "deteriorating environment for human rights defenders in the country," according to a statement made by the United Nations Human Rights Office for South East Asia.
The event, entitled "Access to Justice in Thailand: Currently Unavailable," was due to take place September 2 and was to see the launch of a report by Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) exploring the situation in the kingdom 100 days after the coup in late May.
When members of the group arrived to speak to the gathered press and members of the public, uniformed police officers pushed forward to the podium and announced that the event was canceled.
FCCT President Jonathan Head told VICE News that members of TLHR and other participating groups including Amnesty International Thailand had been told by authorities that any human rights concerns should instead be conveyed through a phone hotline. In response, Amnesty International said that "the prevention of this peaceful event amounts to restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. This is just the latest move by the authorities in Thailand to restrict the legitimate activities of human rights defenders."
In the days following the May coup, VICE News filmed similar scenes at the club when armed soldiers entered the premises to arrest former education minister Chaturon Chaiseng, who had come out of hiding to condemn the military takeover at a press conference. A member of deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's cabinet, Chaiseng now faces a military court and a possible 14 years in jail for choosing to not report to authorities as ordered following the coup.
'We are unable to hear anything from the former government and its supporters because these people have been intimated into silence.'
Talking about the rights situation, Head said that "the climate has changed significantly for all media organizations since the coup," and that for the club itself, "the sweeping provisions of martial law mean we do have to consider carefully how we organize programs.
"We are unable, for example, to hear anything from the former government and its supporters because these people have been intimated into silence. The FCCT tries to hold speaking events that reflect all views in Thailand and the region, but this has inevitably become more challenging under a military government which has outlawed most critical comment about its actions."
The restrictions have not been limited to those wanting to express their views about events in the country itself. In August, Amnesty International Thailand was invited to a police station and asked to cancel a planned event campaigning for the protection of civilians in Gaza. Later, a small group of Thai Christians who congregated outside a shopping mall in central Bangkok to condemn atrocities by Islamic State against Christians in Iraq were met by undercover police officers and told to disperse.
A local photojournalist who was at the scene told VICE News, "They started chanting for around five minutes, but very quickly there were five or six plainclothes policemen. The police told them to stop and called in the leader of the protest. He told them they were protesting for the rights of Christians in the world. They were then asked to go away by the police, and they left."
Critics say such moves are indicative of an evolving landscape in Thailand where expression of individual thought on almost any topic, however uncontroversial, is met with military orders and the threat of arrest — or, in the parlance of the military, an invitation to meditate.
In their statement, OHCR emphasized that Thailand had ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which "guarantees rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly," and called on the government to comply with its international human rights obligations.
On the surface, calm appears to have been restored in Thailand since the coup, and the specter of mass civil disobedience and even civil war, so widely feared in the weeks leading up to and following the takeover, is now rarely mentioned.