A senior aide to Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha says he is pressing ahead with a petition to expel international human rights group Amnesty International from the country over its support for protesters demanding curbs on the kingdom’s powerful monarchy.
Seksakol Atthawong, a vice minister in the prime minister’s office, told VOA over the weekend that he has the 1 million signatures he set out last year to collect and would be submitting the petition to the Ministry of Interior and the National Security Council on Thursday.
“The organization [Amnesty] is involved in cooperating with the mob, and the mob is against the Constitution of Thailand under the monarchy,” he said.
“The mob” is common shorthand for a youth-led protest movement that started out in late 2019 calling on Prayut to resign but later added to its demands a 10-point list of reforms aimed at reining in the monarchy’s political influence.
Seksakol launched his petition drive in November, after Amnesty International criticized a recent ruling by the Constitutional Court that the 10-point list aimed not at reforming the monarchy but at its wholesale “overthrow,” in breach of a constitution that holds the monarchy beyond reproach.
Amnesty International called the ruling a “dangerous warning” to Thais exercising their rights to share their opinions and said it could pave the way for serious charges against those who do.
Section 112 of the Criminal Code prescribes up to 15 years in prison for anyone convicted of defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a local legal aid group, says more than 150 people have been charged with the offense since late 2020.
Seksakol told VOA that Amnesty International had overstepped the law itself.
“The organization is effectively involved with the mob, which is against the law, 112, … and that violates Thai law,” he said.
Amnesty International may be under investigation already. According to multiple news reports, Prayut ordered the national police and Interior Ministry to probe the group for any possible breaches of Thai law in November, soon after Seksakol launched his petition.
A spokeswoman for the government, however, told VOA an investigation had not been ordered and that authorities were considering only whether to renew Amnesty’s two-year license to operate in Thailand. Neither the Interior Ministry nor a spokesman for the police replied to VOA’s questions about the reported investigation.
Amnesty International, responding to VOA’s request for comment by email, said its work in Thailand, as everywhere else, was impartial and independent.
“While we recognize that the Royal Thai Government has a duty to protect public order and national security,” the rights group said, “we continue to highlight that authorities must do so in a manner that is in accordance with international human rights law, and that is proportionate, necessary and fulfills the government’s obligations to ensure and facilitate respect for human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
The group also questioned Seksakol’s claim of having gathered 1 million signatures.
“The signature collection method of the anti-Amnesty campaign is still unclear whereas credible petitions make transparent to the public how signatures were gathered,” Amnesty said.
Seksakol did not reply to VOA’s request for an explanation of how he had gathered the endorsements. At a news conference last month, though, he said they would have to be vetted before being submitted to the authorities.
The pressure mounting on Amnesty International comes amid the government’s plans to pass a new law regulating the work of all non-profit organizations, NPOs, in Thailand.
A first draft released early last year would have required NPOs to register with the government and declare the source of all funding and how they spend it. It would have allowed the Interior Ministry to enter their offices at any time and seize their electronic communications without a court order, and let NPOs spend any foreign funding only on work “permitted by the Ministry” without elaborating.
The government said it needed the law to check the threat of shadowy groups that would use foreign funds to destabilize the country. Critics warned that it posed an “existential threat” to the work of human rights groups like Amnesty International in Thailand and urged the government to scrap the bill.
A new version of the bill, approved by Prayut’s cabinet last month, transfers oversight of NPOs to the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, no
longer makes registration mandatory, and drops the blanket restrictions on foreign funding.
In its analysis of the new draft, though, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law said it also “introduces new far-reaching restrictions that threaten to undercut most of the positive changes” and which “run counter to international norms regarding the freedom of association.”
The latest draft would, for example, prohibit NPOs from any work that would “affect public order or people’s good morals,” “affect public interest,” or “affect the happy, normal existence of other persons.”
The law center said the restrictions were “so broad that, collectively, most legitimate NPO activities could be defined in such a way as to fall under one or more of the prohibited areas.”
More than 40 local and international NPOs have signed an open letter urging the government to scrap the new draft as well.
The government has opened the draft to another round of public feedback before it heads back to the cabinet. If the cabinet approves the draft again, it will move on to parliament for a possible vote.