Danger to political freedom following attack on historian
THAILAND: Danger to political freedom following attack on historian
On 12 February 2014, assailants fired repeated gunshots and threw homemade bombs at the home and car of Professor Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a history professor at Thammasat University and outspoken political and cultural critic. The attack took place during the day and Professor Somsak was at home when it occurred. Although he did not sustain any physical injuries, the damage to his car and house indicate that the violence was intended to be deadly. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) would like to urgently express concern over the attack against Professor Somsak and the growing dangers to political freedom that it indicates. The AHRC calls on the relevant Thai state agencies to take immediate action to guarantee the safety of Professor Somsak and others who are at risk for their work defending political freedom.
As a professor of history at Thammasat University, Professor Somsak Jeamteerasakul’s writing and teaching have inspired many students and citizens to carefully examine the past, present, and persecution of the powerless by the powerful. His criticism often makes those in power uncomfortable, and there has been an attempt to use Article 112, the measure of the Criminal Code which stipulates that “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished (with) imprisonment of three to fifteen years,” to curtail his speech. In April 2011, a police investigation began against him in relation to a complaint likely made in relation to comments he made in article about Princess Chulabhorn’s appearance on a talk show (AHRC-STM-056-2011). This case is still ongoing, even though Article 112 does not apply to Princess Chulabhorn, and so there is no legal restriction of comments made about her. In early February 2014, the deputy spokesman of the Royal Thai Army commented that the Army plans to file additional complaints against Professor Somsak in relation to comments he posted on Facebook.
In May 2011, Thanapol Eawsakul, editor of the magazine Fa Diew Kan (Same Sky), made a series of six observations about why the complaint filed Professor Somsak was “a turning point for lèse majesté” (the observations can be found in Thai here and in English translation here). He noted that this complaint represented the transgression of a line by state power; the line crossed was one that had permitted some discussion of the monarchy without sanction. In the nearly three years since Thanapol’s observation, the use of the law to silence dissent has expanded in Thailand. In November 2011, Amphon Tangnoppakul was sentenced to a 20-years in prison for allegedly sending 4 SMS messages with anti-monarchy content, despite significant questions about the strength of the prosecution’s evidence (AHRC-STM-180-2011). In May 2012, under medical conditions within the prison system which reflect gross dehumanization, and perhaps criminal negligence, Amphon died in prison while serving this sentence (AHRC-STM-101-2012). In January 2013, Somyos Prueksakasemsuk was sentenced to eleven years in prison for his role in publishing and dissemination two issues of Voice of Taksin magazine which contained articles deemed to violate Article 112; publishing and dissemination were judged to be as equally legally actionable as writing the articles (AHRC-STM-027-2013).
In a statement submitted to the twenty-fourth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), the sister organization of the AHRC, cited these cases and others to express grave concern over the ongoing entrenchment of the constriction of freedom of expression on human rights, justice, and the rule of law in Thailand. The ALRC noted that the frequency of the exercise of the draconian Article 112 and the Computer Crimes Act risks the naturalization and normalization of violations of rights and the constriction of speech and political freedom in the name of the protection of national security (ALRC-CWS-24-02-2013).
In a statement released on February 13, 2014, the Human Rights Lawyers Association and several other Thai human rights organizations released a statement condemning the attack on Professor Somsak and calling for prompt state action in response to protect him and bring the perpetrators to justice. They noted that the attack followed extensive criticism of Professor Somsak in social media, and that his home address was spread using social media, in violation of his right to privacy protected by Article 35 of the 2007 Constitution. The HRLA warned that this kind of attack was a grave threat to human rights broadly-conceived, and noted that, “Tolerance and acceptance of different opinions are an important instrument in the development of democracy. As long as the expression of opinion does not violate the law, individuals have freedom to express their opinions, and those who do not agree with these opinions, can express the opposing opinion within the boundaries of the law. But if individuals in society use those who express different opinions, a state of fear may ensue in society and rights and freedom of expression may not be able to be peacefully exercised” (AHRC translation, HRLA statement can be read in Thai here).
The AHRC would like to further note that this kind of extralegal, vigilante attack on Professor Somsak Jeamteerasakul represents an escalation of the crisis surrounding freedom of expression and political freedom in Thailand. The attack took place during the day, while Professor Somsak was at home, which indicates both that the perpetrators were unconcerned with being seen and intended to inflict harm or death. In a statement released on February 13, 2014, the Khana Nitirat, a coalition of seven progressive law academics at Thammasat University, released a statement noting that “The instance of a group of individuals using weapons to shoot at Dr. Somsak Jeamteerasakul’s house and damage his car during the day, while Dr. Somsak was in the house, was a disgraceful act with no regard for the law. It is clear that this action was a result of Dr. Somsak expressing his opinion about the institution of the monarchy, which was within the boundaries of law. The aforementioned action was an intimidating threat to his freedom of expression and intellectual freedom” (AHRC translation, Khana Nitirat statement can be read in Thai here). The AHRC would like to highlight the Khana Nitirat’s point that the attack on Professor Somsak was an extralegal threat made against him due to his exercise of freedom of expression, which is protected under Article 45 of the 2007 Thai Constitution.
The Asian Human Rights Commission would like to remind the Thai government that they are a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and are bound to uphold the human rights principles named therein. In particular, the AHRC would like to call on the Thai state to uphold Article 19 of the ICCPR, which guarantees the rights to political freedom and freedom of expression. In this case, part of upholding the ICCPR means protecting those whose views are dissident and ensuring that they can safely exercise their political freedom.
It is imperative that the Thai state’s protection of the rights guaranteed in Article 19 and the remainder of the ICCPR be active, rather than passive. The AHRC therefore calls on the Metropolitan police to conduct a full investigation into the attack on Professor Somsak Jeamteerasakul and bring the men who shot at his house and car to justice. This will both serve to specifically protect Professor Somsak and will also signal to other vigilante actors that these kinds of attacks will not be tolerated in the Thai polity.