Human Rights in Asia-Pacific; Review of 2019 - Thailand


Activists, academics, opposition politicians, and human rights defenders were arrested, detained and prosecuted for peacefully expressing their views on the government and monarchy. The government maintained systematic and arbitrary restrictions on human rights, including by passing a new cybersecurity law. Refugees and asylum-seekers were vulnerable to arrest, detention, deportation, and rendition.


In March, Thailand held its first general election since the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) took power in a May 2014 coup. In May, King Maha Vajiralongkorn was formally crowned in a coronation ceremony. NCPO Head General Prayut Chan-O-Cha was elected prime minister in June.

In July, a new cabinet was sworn in and the NCPO was dissolved. The authorities lifted some 70 decrees that the NCPO had issued, with all others passing automatically into law. Pending civilian cases were to be transferred from military to civilian courts. However, the military retained expanded powers to carry out arbitrary detentions.

Disappearances, torture, and investigations into attacks against political opponents

In September, the Department of Special Investigation confirmed the death of Porlachee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, an ethnic Karen human rights activist who had not been seen since he was taken into the custody of park officials at Kaeng Krachan National Park in 2014. The department announced that fragments of his bone were found in a reservoir in a protected part of the park, and brought charges, including of premeditated murder, against a former park chief in December. In July, the UNESCO Heritage Committee postponed any decision on awarding World Heritage status to Kaeng Krachan National Park, citing concerns about human rights violations.

There was no progress in investigations into the disappearances of several Thai political activists who had made internet broadcasts in exile criticising the monarchy and the military government. Two of the men had gone missing in Laos in 2016 and 2017, in circumstances raising suspicions that they had been abducted. Three others went missing in Laos in late 2018. The corpses of two men from the latter group were found weighted with concrete in the Mekong river in Thailand in late December 2018. Unknown perpetrators were believed to have abducted them together with Surachai Danwattananusorn, the third man, whose whereabouts remained unknown.

Three other Thai dissidents disappeared in early 2019. Chucheep Chiwasut, Siam Theerawut, and Kritsana Thupthai were last reported to have been seen in detention in Viet Nam, and were believed to have been transferred to Thai custody in May 2019.[1] One of Theerawut’s relatives said that Thai government officials sought to dissuade her from reporting his disappearance to the UN.

Ethnic Malay individuals detained in counter-insurgency operations in three southern border provinces reported torture and other ill-treatment, including in the Ingkhayutthaborihan Military Camp. An investigation was opened into the death of a man on 25 August, who had been in a coma since 21 July, hours after being detained and interrogated at the camp.

Military officials continued to exercise sweeping law enforcement powers, including holding individuals in unofficial places of detention and without charge. A number of detainees were held incommunicado. A man who had sued seven police officers for allegedly torturing him faced trial on counter-charges of perjury filed by one of the officers.

Freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, and the right to privacy

The Cybersecurity Law and Data Protection Act were passed in February 2019 allowing the government to increase online surveillance and censorship. The laws allowed sweeping government surveillance without basic legal safeguards. Later in the year, the Digital Economy and Society Ministry established an “Anti-Fake News Centre” mandated to filter out online content deemed “fake news” and to take unspecified measures against users who post such content.

The authorities brought criminal charges against opposition politicians, academics, factory workers, and activists under laws governing computer crimes, public assembly and sedition. Defendants in these cases had participated in activities such as marching in peaceful demonstrations, discussing political reform, or criticising the monarchy or the government, including on social media.[2] At least 21 people were prosecuted for wearing T-shirts or displaying flags associated with a movement proposing a federal political system. Members of the opposition Future Forward Party faced multiple charges while its leader was disqualified as a member of parliament, moves widely seen as politically motivated. The authorities also took steps to dissolve the party, following the disbanding of Thai Raksa Chart Party in March.

The courts dismissed a number of cases brought by the military government against journalists and political activists, and found in one case that the defendants had been peacefully exercising their constitutionally-guaranteed rights.

In June, the authorities released Siraphop Komaroot, aka Rungsila, who had been held for 59 months in pre-trial detention under charges of lèse-majesté. His release followed a finding by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that he was arbitrarily detained.

The authorities harassed people who criticized the monarchy or the military authorities and required them in many cases to retract their statements or self-censor. The government also pressured social media platforms to restrict access in Thailand to such content. Politicians and political activists reported physical surveillance and harassment by army personnel, including during the election period and the lead-up to the coronation.

Unknown perpetrators carried out violent attacks against pro-democracy activists, which coincided with their efforts to draw attention to perceived election irregularities and problems relating to the formation of a new government.[3] The survivors of the attacks reported that the authorities had not conducted thorough investigations into the incidents. Political activists also reported anonymous threats of physical harm and harassment linked to their public campaigning.

The Ministry of the Interior continued to bar Amnesty International Thailand from including student activist Nethiwit Chotiphatphaisal as a youth representative on its board, stating that “he has had inappropriate conduct in the past deemed unfit for this role.”

In October, the police reportedly withdrew a worrying order requiring universities to report on the membership and activities of Muslim student groups.

Human rights defenders

A poultry company filed multiple cases against a group of workers who had complained about labour conditions, as well as against human rights defenders, a journalist and a former human rights commissioner who commented on the cases. The Appeals Court upheld a 10 million baht (US $331,564) civil defamation award that the Natural Fruit company had won against Andy Hall, a labour rights activist who had documented labour rights abuses at the company’s factory.

In response to concerns raised by the P-Move campaign network, the government announced the establishment of a committee to address complaints about the impact of forest reclamation policies on resident farmers. People who are landless and living in poverty, without title to contested land in forest areas, were prosecuted on charges of land encroachment and forced eviction. Many of these individuals had previously reported that they had been forcibly evicted from areas where they had lived for generations. Between May and July, the Court of Appeal upheld sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment against 14 women farmers whom the National Parks in Saithong National Park, Chaiyaphum Province had sued for trespass.


Under the 2017 Constitution, members of the NCPO were protected from prosecution for human rights violations committed during NCPO rule.

In May, officials informed the mother of one of six persons killed by soldiers at Pathum Wanaram Temple during the 2010 protests that no soldiers would be prosecuted for the killings, due to a supposed lack of evidence.

Refugees and asylum-seekers

Refugees and asylum-seekers remained at risk of arrest, detention and refoulement in the absence of a formal legal status under Thai law. A migrant status determination procedure announced in January 2017 was passed at the end of the year.

Hundreds remained in detention in immigration detention centres, where many had been detained for years, including refugees who had been imprisoned for entering Thailand with false documentation.

In January, Thai police were allegedly involved in the abduction in Bangkok of a Vietnamese blogger and asylum-seeker, who later reappeared in detention in Viet Nam. In September, a Lao asylum-seeker went missing in Bangkok.

Hakeem Al-Araibi, a Bahraini refugee and Australian resident, was released in February after being detained in Thailand for nearly three months pending deportation to Bahrain, where he would have been at risk of human rights violations.[4]

Armed conflict

Ethnic Malay insurgents carried out attacks against civilians, including on public markets and a temple, using both weapons and improvised explosive devices. Martial law and a 2005 Emergency Decree remained in place in the southern border provinces.

Death penalty

In April, the National Legislative Assembly approved amendments to the Anti-Human Trafficking Act providing for capital punishment in cases involving abuses leading to death.

[1] Thailand: Confirm safety and whereabouts of three Thai citizens (news story, 10 May).

[2] Thailand: Authorities should end politically-motivated persecution of opposition figures and activists (news story, 6 April).

[3] Thailand: Investigate violent attacks on activists and protect rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly (ASA 39/0634/2019, 2 July).

[4] Thailand: Detained Bahraini footballer must be allowed to return to Australia (news story, 9 January).