ASEAN MPs call on Thai authorities to allow for free expression in advance of constitutional referendum

General Press Releases Wednesday July 6, 2016 11:32
Bangkok--6 Jul--ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights

Parliamentarians from across Southeast Asia expressed disappointment at yesterday's ruling by the Thai Constitutional Court upholding Article 61 of the Constitutional Referendum Act. The clause outlaws the distribution of information intended to influence voters in advance of a referendum on the draft charter, scheduled for 7 August.

"The decision by the Constitutional Court to uphold this overly broad statute, which has already been used to arrest and intimidate activists and stifle criticism, marks yet another disappointing setback for freedom of expression in Thailand," said Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament and Chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).

"The restriction on campaigning may not technically violate the interim charter imposed by generals who took over the country by force, but it unquestionably violates fundamental rights protected under international law. It is distressing to watch as the Thai government becomes increasingly hostile to free expression, and continues to undermine the creation of an environment conducive to a free and fair referendum vote."

Parliamentarians also voiced concerns over the arrest on 23 June of 13 activists in Samut Prakan province, who were distributing campaign material urging citizens to vote "no" in the upcoming referendum. The activists have been charged by a military court with violating Article 61 of the Constitutional Referendum Act, as well as a ban on public gatherings, which has been in effect since the military overthrew the last elected civilian government in May 2014. Six of the activists have been released on bail, while seven remain detained in Bangkok's Remand Prison after refusing to accept the conditions set for bail. A second remand hearing has been scheduled for 5 July.

APHR called for the immediate release of those detained and for all charges against the activists to be dropped. MPs also urged the Thai authorities to repeal restrictions on free expression and assembly and allow for free and open debate.

"These arrests underline the absurdity of the rules surrounding the upcoming referendum. These individuals were trying to promote responsible civic engagement, working to inform the public about the draft constitution and their legitimate concerns about its content. For them to be arrested and detained for such behavior is not only a violation of their fundamental rights; it's utterly nonsensical. Ultimately, it just underscores the junta's apparent desire to shut down all debate and force feed this charter to the Thai people," Santiago said.

Parliamentarians noted that the statutes under which the activists are being charged violate basic rights to free expression and assembly and contravene Thailand's commitments as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The charges follow other efforts by the junta to shut down space for criticism of the constitutional draft. This included the 19 June forcible closure of a Bangkok-based center set up by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) to monitor fraud during the referendum.

"If the upcoming referendum is to have a single shred of legitimacy, the Thai authorities must immediately allow for free and open debate in advance of the vote. If the junta continues to propagate a climate of fear by arresting and intimidating individuals for simply exercising their rights, then the result will be a deeply anti-democratic and unstable political situation for the foreseeable future," Santiago concluded.

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