Thailand 2020

Authorities repressed peaceful protesters, and detained and launched criminal proceedings against human rights defenders, opposition politicians and other critics for joining peaceful assemblies and expressing critical views of the government, the Constitution, and the monarchy. A series of demonstrations took place in Bangkok and other cities. Official measures to control the COVID-19 pandemic left refugees at heightened risk of refoulement. The courts handed down death sentences, including for murder; a number of death sentences were commuted by royal pardon to life imprisonment.

Background

Under the Organic Law on Political Parties, the Constitutional Court ruled in February to dissolve the Future Forward party, a new opposition party that had won 81 seats in the 2019 elections. The move was widely seen as politically motivated.1 The dissolution triggered public criticism of the government and calls for constitutional reform. Authorities announced criminal proceedings against the party leader and other executives, 16 of whom were prohibited from competing in elections for 10 years.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha issued an Emergency Decree in March which gave government agencies authority to enforce specific actions meant to curb the spread of COVID-19. The government also issued a list of prohibitions accompanying the Emergency Decree, which included vague and overly broad restrictions on the right to freedom of expression.

The Emergency Decree was initially set to expire after 30 April, but the government extended it until the end of December. The extensive powers granted to authorities under the Emergency Decree were used to repress dissent and prosecute students and activists who led and took part in peaceful assemblies. In October, authorities declared a “severe” state of emergency, granting more powers to police, before revoking the order the following week. In November, the government convened an extraordinary parliamentary session to discuss cross-party solutions to ongoing protest gatherings amid talks of constitutional reform.

Enforced disappearances

In January, the State Prosecutor, citing lack of evidence, dropped the charges of premeditated murder and illegal detention against Kaeng Krachan National Park officials who had been accused of the enforced disappearance of environmental activist Pholachi “Billy” Rakchongcharoen in 2014.2

In June, unknown individuals abducted Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a Thai blogger who was exiled in Cambodia.3 Thai authorities did not reveal whether they had worked with the Cambodian government to investigate his enforced disappearance, nor did they announce whether they took any initiatives to ascertain his fate and whereabouts. At least eight other Thai activists who had sought exile in neighbouring countries were abducted or disappeared between 2016 and 2019.

Torture and other ill-treatment

In March, Amnesty International reported a pattern of torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence, against military conscripts at the hands of their commanding officers.4 No investigations were known to have been conducted by the military’s command structure into such allegations.

The Council of State finalized its latest review of legislation criminalizing torture and enforced disappearance in September. The bill was not tabled by the cabinet for parliamentary discussion.

People detained in the three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, where martial law and the Emergency Decree remained in force, reported the use of torture and other ill-treatment amid an ongoing insurgency against the central government.

Repression of dissent

In July, students led protests in the capital, Bangkok, and across the country to demand the resignation of the Prime Minister, the revision of the Constitution, and reform of the monarchy so that it would be subject to legal, political and fiscal oversight. The government responded by enforcing restrictive laws and using its extensive powers under the Emergency Decree to unduly restrict peaceful assemblies.

In October, the government announced additional emergency measures to address what it called “illegal public assemblies” and the alleged obstruction by protesters of the royal motorcade. An estimated 220 individuals who had participated in the protests, including children, were detained or faced criminal proceedings, including for alleged sedition, lèse majesté, computer crimes and breaching emergency measures.5 Five activists faced life imprisonment for charges under Article 110 of the Criminal Code for “intending to cause harm to the Queen’s liberty”; they remained free on bail.

The demonstrations were overwhelmingly peaceful, but there were instances when police used excessive and unnecessary force to disperse the protesters. In October and November, police used water cannons laced with a chemical irritant and threw tear gas canisters towards peaceful protesters.

Children attending demonstrations reported receiving threats of expulsion from school and other forms of pressure and harassment from teachers and school executives to prevent them from joining the protests. Some reported school authorities hitting them, confiscating their belongings and requiring their attendance at meetings with authorities.

Freedom of expression

At the beginning of the year, courts acquitted 14 human rights defenders and online commentators in four separate cases after years of criminal proceedings initiated by authorities and corporations against them for alleged online defamation.6 The courts confirmed that their social media posts on alleged labour abuses or political comment were lawful criticisms made in the public interest.

The authorities continued to charge dozens of individuals under the broad and vaguely-worded provisions of the Computer Crime Act for opinions posted online.7 Among these, authorities targeted an artist for his Facebook post about airport screening for COVID-19, and a social media user for his tweets about the royal motorcade.

In August, Facebook announced that they had complied with a request from the authorities to restrict access to the Royalist Marketplace, an anti-monarchist Facebook group, despite deeming that the order “contravene[s] international human rights law”.8 Authorities also sought to censor the media, including by requesting court permission to shut down five online media outlets in relation to their coverage of peaceful demonstrations.

Human rights defenders

In July, the civil court granted class action status to a lawsuit brought by more than 700 Cambodian families who sued Thai sugar company Mitr Phol after being forcibly evicted from their homes in north-western Cambodia from 2008 to 2009.9

Community-based human rights groups reported experiencing harassment and threats of criminal proceedings from authorities for planning or taking part in peaceful protests.

Despite the adoption of a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, the government failed to prevent Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) lawsuits filed by corporations and other business entities to silence human rights defenders. While courts dismissed some of these SLAPP lawsuits against human rights defenders, corporations filed new ones.

Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants

Authorities delayed the implementation of a National Screening Mechanism for refugees and asylum-seekers that came into force in June.

Migrants and refugees were subjected to indefinite arbitrary detention and overcrowding in detention facilities, increasing their risk of COVID-19 infection. Fifty Uyghur men remained indefinitely detained in poor conditions in immigration detention facilities, pending proof of their nationality from Turkey or China.

During the year boats with hundreds of Rohingya refugees were stranded at sea for months with inadequate food, water and health care. Thai authorities put lives at risk by preventing disembarkation and by reportedly pushing boats back to sea.


  1. Thailand: Authorities must reverse dissolution of opposition Future Forward Party (News story, 21 February)
  2. Thailand: Six years after Billy disappeared, authorities must provide justice and protect his community’s rights (ASA 39/2155/2020)
  3. Cambodia: Investigate whereabouts of missing Thai dissident (News story, 5 June)
  4. “We were just toys to them”: Physical, mental and sexual abuse of conscripts in Thailand’s military (ASA 39/1995/2020)
  5. Thailand: Drop unjustified charges and release peaceful protesters (News story, 24 October)
  6. Thailand: Oppose defamation charges against human rights defenders for exposing labour abuses (ASA 39/1846/2020)
  7. They are always watching”: Restricting freedom of expression online in Thailand (ASA 39/2157/2020)
  8. Thailand: Facebook caves to abusive censorship requests (News story, 25 August)
  9. Amicus curiae in the case of Hoy Mai & Others vs. Mitr Phol Co. Ltd (ASA 39/2753/2020)