Bangkok Post  

Aug 30, 2017

As the country moves ahead under the political roadmap drafted by the military regime, there is a habit adopted by the state that could ruin the effort. This is the excessive use of Section 116 of the Criminal Code, known in layman’s term as the sedition law.

Even though the National Council for Peace and Order or its legal arm, the National Legislative Assembly, did not craft this law which penalises people who incite others to commit wrongdoing or unrest, there has been a sharp increase in the number of cases since the 2014 coup.

The frequency of its use has but one goal: to silence the public.

Those found guilty under this law face a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.

A study by ILaw, published earlier this week in Prachatai, showed that Section 116 has been used against 66 people, including members of the media and human rights defenders, in 26 cases. Of that total, 20 cases involved people who criticized the coup or dubious acts of the military regime.

Ten cases are in court; seven are pending investigation. One case was thrown out, while defendants in another received suspended sentences. The status of the other one is not yet known.

Last week, the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) issued a statement calling on the regime to stop violating people’s freedom of expression with this law.

The TJA said the actions of the regime was tantamount to exploiting the law to silence those wanting to express differing opinions.

The statement came after several journalists and academics were recently charged with sedition under Section 116 and violating the Computer Crime Act which makes the matter worse.

Several other cases demonstrated abuse of power on the part of the authorities.

However, intensive use of such a draconian law seems irrational at this time. This is because the regime, since toppling the civilian government in 2014, has managed to consolidate its power, and major challenges by opponents appear impossible. There has been solid progress in its roadmap to democracy, but abuse of such a law will only harm this process.

In addition the overuse of the law shows a lack of respect for the 2017 constitution which cherishes human rights and freedom of expression.

Sooner, rather than later, the military regime will find out such acts can backfire.

Actually, it learned that last year. Thailand was rated low by US-based Freedom House, with an unimpressive score of 77 (out of 100) on media freedom, lagging behind some of our Asean friends such as the Philippines (44) and Indonesia (49). It was the second year in a row that Thailand was ranked so poorly. Reporters Without Borders, meanwhile, ranked Thailand 134th out of 180 countries in its 2015 World Press Freedom Index.

Tight control of freedom of expression has already hurt the country’s standing internationally. Shortly after the May 22 coup, when the regime took steps to curb freedom of expression, Thailand failed to win a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. Many linked this to the rise of the regime.

Last year, the country suffered another embarrassment when it was defeated by Kazakhstan in a battle to become one of the 10 non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. Again, critics blamed the loss on the country’s bruised human rights record under the coup makers.

Needless to say, Thailand’s international reputation has been severely damaged by the May 22, 2014, military coup. Ongoing despotic actions of the ruling military regime, like the abuse of Section 116 against its critics, will only result in international setbacks and embarrassments for the country.