Hundreds of people blockaded the National Assembly in Bangkok on Dec. 12, where the unelected legislature, consisting largely of serving and former military officers and bureaucrats, was set to pass a flurry of highly regressive bills before stepping down next year. The protestors called on them to wait for an elected government so the proposed laws could be debated.
Afterwards, police officers said they would consider prosecuting people who climbed the building’s fences and went inside. They accused some of kicking and punching government officials and said that they could be charged with trespass, coercion, upsetting the peace, confinement and damaging public property, among other things.
This sounds familiar. The same bundle of offences is pulled out every time demonstrators and police collide in Thailand.
And it’s a hefty bundle. Trespass carries a penalty of up to one year in prison; if accompanied by threat of violence, five. Failure to disperse when ordered is punishable by three years; coercion, another three years; destruction of public property, five; obstructing an on-duty official, four years; and confinement, three.
Evidence isn’t too important. If someone of power or influence wants the case in court, it will get there. The accused may have heavy criminal indictments hanging over their heads for years before finally being let off.
Take the case of Ratchada Watanasak and 19 others who opposed the building of a gas pipeline across the border with Malaysia. When the former prime minister came to the south in 2002, they organized local people to gather outside a venue where he was meeting with his Cabinet.
Ratchada and the others had informed the authorities of their plans, so when police tried to force them from a bridge en route they resisted. Then they were hit with the bundle.
In court, the police tried to show that the protestors had asked for trouble. They produced various objects to support their claims, including, absurdly, a red flag on a bamboo pole. It was a provocative color, they said. They also showed out-of-sequence video footage of the melee on the bridge.
The judges were not convinced. In December 2004 they found that the protestors had not picked a fight. On the contrary, they concluded that the people had gathered in an orderly manner but the police had not dealt with them responsibly. The prosecutor appealed and it took until August of this year for a higher court to uphold the decision.
Compare the handling of this case with that of the five police who are alleged to have abducted and killed a human rights lawyer, Somchai Neelaphaijit, in 2004.
Whereas a bundle of offences is readily available to deal with errant protestors, there is none for errant police. They were charged only with armed gang robbery of the victim’s vehicle and possessions, and with coercion. Four got off; one was sentenced to three years. He was bailed out pending appeal. The public prosecutor did not pursue the case against the others.
Is protest a more serious offence in Thailand than abducting and killing someone? Perhaps the question seems unfair. Surely, anywhere in the world it is easy to find and contrast instances of imbalanced criminal proceedings like the above.
But these cases are not isolated. They are indicative: police in Thailand are rarely prosecuted for anything; protestors are routinely prosecuted for… well, for protesting.
Protestors there are treated as latent offenders, rather than as persons exercising legitimate rights. Their behavior is viewed with distrust, rather than being acknowledged as an indispensible part of a multifaceted and competitive society. And it is this problem of mentality, as well as the bundle of offences on the statute book, which they are up against whenever they take to the street.
At a time that Thailand’s military and bureaucratic elites are supposedly making way for a new democratic government, it would be a fantastic act of hypocrisy for the police to lay charges against a group of people who did no more than demand their democratic rights. But this regime has been an exemplar of hypocrisy, and its agenda is neither new nor democratic, so it won’t be surprising if they do.