Thailand authorities use water cannon against peaceful activists, arrest journalists

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Thai police unnecessarily used water cannon against peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok on October 16, 2020, in violation of international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said on Friday. The authorities acted under state of emergency powers declared the previous day, which allows the security forces to commit abuses with impunity.

At about 6:30 p.m., police forcibly dispersed a demonstration organized by the pro-democracy People’s Movement in which thousands of people, including many students, took part. Human Rights Watch observed the police using water cannon laced with blue dye and an apparent teargas chemical to break up the protest in Bangkok’s Pathumwan shopping district. The police then charged in with batons and shields to disperse the protesters. Scores were arrested. The government has not yet provided details about people in police custody. After the crackdown, 12 protest leaders are being sought on arrest warrants.

“By sending in the police to violently disperse peaceful protesters, Thailand’s government is embarking on a wider crackdown to end the students’ protests,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Invoking the Emergency Decree gives the police the green light to commit rights abuses with impunity.”

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Under the 2020 United Nations guidance on less-lethal weapons in law enforcement, “Water cannon should only be used in situations of serious public disorder where there is a significant likelihood of loss of life, serious injury or the widespread destruction of property.” In addition, water cannon should “not target a jet of water at an individual or group of persons at short range owing to the risk of causing permanent blindness or secondary injuries if persons are propelled energetically by the water jet.”

Police arrested a Prachatai journalist, Kitti Pantapak, as he broadcast the police’s dispersal operation on Facebook Live. Kitti identified himself as a reporter and wore a press armband issued by the Thai Journalists Association. He faces possible charges under the Emergency Decree, which prohibits publishing and broadcasting information that threatens national security.

International news reporting on Thailand, such as by the BBC World Service, has been blocked on the country’s main cable TV network, True Visions. Thai authorities also pressed satellite service providers to block the broadcast of Voice TV, a station widely known for its critical coverage of the government.

The Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation empowers Thai authorities to impose broad censorship in violation of the right to free expression and media freedom. On October 16, the police issued several warnings against news reports and social media commentary critical of the monarchy, the government, and political situation in the country. Livestreaming pro-democracy protests was declared illegal, as well as posting selfies at a protest site.

The decree also grants the authorities broad powers to arrest people without charge and detain them in informal detention sites, such as military camps. Officials carrying out the duties under the decree have legal immunity. The decree does not require access to legal counsel or visits by family members. Discussions about political issues in the parliament have also been suspended. Any public gathering of five or more people is now banned in Bangkok.

The crackdown occurred a day after Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on October 15, asserting that escalating protests by pro-democracy groups contravened the law and the constitution, threatened the monarchy institution, caused disturbances, harmed national security and public safety, and undermined measures to curtail Covid-19. Shortly after his announcement, the government sent in police to forcibly disperse protesters camped outside the Government House. The police arrested at least 22 people, including the protest leaders Arnon Nampha, Parit Chiwarak, Prasiddhi Grudharochana, and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul.

The government has shown increasing hostility toward pro-democracy protests, which started on July 18 and later spread across the country. The protesters called for the resignation of the government, the drafting of a new constitution, and an end to the authorities harassing people who exercise their freedom of expression. Some of the protests included demands for reforms to curb the king’s powers. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that at least 85 protesters faced illegal assembly charges for holding peaceful protests in Bangkok and other provinces. Some protest leaders have also been charged with sedition, which carries a maximum seven-year prison term, for making demands regarding reforms of the monarchy institution.

International human rights law, as reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But Thai authorities have routinely enforced censorship and gagged public discussions about human rights, political reforms, and the role of the monarchy in society. Over the past decade, hundreds of activists and dissidents have been prosecuted on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for the peaceful expression of their views. In addition, over the past five months, the authorities have used emergency measures to help control the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban anti-government rallies and harass pro-democracy activists.

“Protesters in Thailand are peacefully demanding democracy, human rights, and reform,” Adams said. “Concerned governments and the United Nations should speak out publicly to demand an immediate end to political repression by the Prayuth administration.”

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