The recent move to expel Amnesty International from Thailand is yet another indicator of the growing influence of the ultra-royalist political faction in Thailand.
Amnesty International, the global human rights advocacy NGO headquartered in London, is under threat in Thailand. On 11 February 2022, Seksakol Atthawong, a vice-minister in the office of the Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, affirmed that he would seek expulsion of Amnesty International from the country. In November 2021, Seksakol launched a petition that has accumulated 1.2 million signatures allegedly proffered by members of ultra-royalist groups and others who oppose Amnesty’s activities in Thailand. They accuse Amnesty of jeopardising national security and interfering in Thailand’s internal affairs.
The Thai chapter of Amnesty International was established in 1993. However, the organisation as a whole has been known among Thai people since 1976, when Amnesty supporters from around the world sent thousands of letters to the Thai government demanding the release of people arrested during the 1976 pro-democracy protests and 6 October 1976 massacre at Thammasat University. Amnesty has maintained an active presence in Thailand, organising both Thai- and English-language campaigns to spread awareness about sensitive human rights issues in the country, such as capital punishment and justice for political prisoners, and to raise funds for on-the-ground efforts.
Supporters of Seksakol’s anti-Amnesty campaign fear the organisation’s alignment with and ongoing focus on the burgeoning youth-led pro-democracy movement, and protestors’ unprecedented main demand to reform the institution of the monarchy. As protests intensified in 2020 after a pandemic hiatus, at least 150 people have been accused of violating Article 112 of the Criminal Code, or the lèse majesté law. This law forbids criticism of the king or monarchy and is used as a tool to silence critics, stipulating three to fifteen years in prison per count for those convicted. Those who wish to expel Amnesty worry that the number of Thai people who are critical of the monarchy is increasing, and this crusade against Amnesty exemplifies their desire to quash the values and rights that Amnesty promotes, especially when the status of the monarchy is at stake.
The immediate trigger for Seksakol’s campaign to expel Amnesty from Thailand appears to have been the organisation’s public response to a November 2021 Constitutional Court ruling that a ten-point list of reforms circulated by pro-democracy protestors was created with the intention of overthrowing the monarchy — not reforming it. Such a violation constitutes an act of treason, which is covered by Article 113 of the Criminal Code, with penalties that include life in prison and death. The ruling was directed at three protest leaders: Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, 23, Arnon Nampa, 37, and Panupong “Mike Rayong” Jadnok, 24, who already face 112 charges for their involvement in the movement, and hundreds of years in prison in total if convicted on all counts. Amnesty International issued a strong statement against the ruling, describing it as a ‘dangerous warning’ to Thai people who ‘want to express their opinions or legitimate criticisms of public figures or institutions.’ Amnesty’s statement also said that the ruling signaled to the international community that Thailand had ‘no intention whatsoever’ to undertake measures to ensure that its laws were consistent with international human rights law, especially when it came to upholding the right to freedom of expression.
Seksakol initiated his campaign shortly after Amnesty publicised this press release. In a statement issued on 16 February 2022, Kyle Ward, Amnesty’s Deputy Secretary General, emphasised Amnesty’s commitment to continuing its work in Thailand and expressed the view that the targeting of Amnesty was taking place against a backdrop of a growing intolerance for human rights discourse among Thai authorities.
Those who wish to expel Amnesty worry that the number of Thai people who are critical of the monarchy is increasing, and this crusade against Amnesty exemplifies their desire to quash the values and rights that Amnesty promotes, especially when the status of the monarchy is at stake.
Seksakol is also pushing the promulgation of a new draft law that would regulate the work of all domestic and foreign non-profit organisations, or NPOs, in Thailand. The proposed Operation of Not-for-Profit Organizations Act, a draft of which was endorsed by the Cabinet on 8 January 2022, would require all NPOs to disclose sources of funding and submit their activity plans for the government’s pre-approval. If the plans were found to threaten the vague, catch-all categories of ‘public order’ and ‘good morals’ the organisations in question would be prohibited from carrying out their work, and their funding would be restricted. Critics fear that the law will be used to target and control NGOs working on sensitive issues such as the insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South, monarchy reform, and anti-megaproject environmental concerns. Organisations based in Thailand that support the pro-democracy movement in Burma/Myanmar may also be affected, illustrating the cascading impacts of the potential law.
In February, a letter urging the government to abandon the current draft was signed by more than 40 local and international NPOs. The draft has since been opened to another round of public feedback before returning to the Cabinet. If the Cabinet approves it, the bill will then be passed to Parliament for consideration. As the Prayut government holds a parliamentary majority, many despair the likely outcome. This bill and the campaign to expel Amnesty encapsulate the strength of the Thai ultra-royalist, authoritarian political faction in which a small group of men hold power and make decisions on behalf of a compliant populace. Whether Amnesty is permitted to remain in Thailand – and the extent to which popular sentiments against its expulsion and against the NPO law can reverse Seksakol’s intended outcomes – will be a measure of the remaining strength of Thailand’s democratic institutions and processes to push back against this authoritarian vision.
Alexandra Dalferro was Visiting Fellow at the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.