One of hundreds of post-coup political prisoners  in Thailand (Photo: Noppon Archamas)

One of hundreds of post-coup political prisoners in Thailand (Photo: Noppon Archamas)

It’s been two years since the last military coup in Thailand and since then there has been an exodus of activists, politicians and academics. 

Meanwhile at home, hundreds have been detained and arrested, or banned from traveling abroad, as democratic freedoms have been curtailed.

Tight control of the media and freedom of speech have seen Thailand dubbed by some as the “State of Fear”.

Kannikar Petchkaew speaks to journalists and activists on the ground for the real story.

Cholticha Jaengrew, a university student in Bangkok, was jailed for demonstrating against the ruling junta last year. She was 22.

Cholticha was released 2 weeks later, but that was just the start of her nightmare.

“My phone was tapped. They also came to my house and followed me everywhere. They called me every time any public activities were organized to interrogate me. It’s a threat to my private life and it’s frightening,” Cholticha revealed.

On the first day they took over in 2014, the military junta asked all citizens to carry on with their lives as normal.

But for Cholticha, constantly followed and watched, nothing felt normal at all.

“Many of my friends were physically abused, one of them has severe cornea problems, so he struggles to see now. I myself, was forcibly pulled and dragged by my arms when I was arrested,” she said.

While many Thais welcomed the army’s intervention at the time, there is growing disquiet about the way the military junta has employed the army to maintain control.

“Think about when you are lying in bed and every time you hear a voice outside you are nervous and can’t sleep anymore. It’s paranoia. You are fearful and cautious. What is that voice about? Who’s voice is that? Is that the voice of the military men, the police? Or the men who come and take people from their beds?” Cholticha described her anxiety.

But junta leader, General Prayuth Chan-ocha denies that his government has abused human rights.

“You said I limit freedom of the press. Did I do that? Answer me! Did I violate human rights? Detaining and summoning people? Where did we summon them? Were they in their places or in the military barracks? In jail or anywhere else? Are they still detained? No! They go under court rule and some were bailed out, where are they? I am asking you. There’s no torture or abuse,” declared General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Chiranuch Preamchaipon is a journalist in her forties.

She agrees that people in Thailand are feeling less free under junta rule.

As well as the existing lese majeste law, a computer related crime act that has been tightened and readily employed by the junta allows unlimited power to arrest people, she says.

More laws have been enforced that limit the freedom of people to talk and share their own opinion, and that even make people afraid of thinking, according to Preamchaipon. 

She was charged under the Computer Crime Act for allowing an allegedly offensive comment about the monarchy on the web-board of the Prachatai News Outlet, where she works.

The court sentenced her to eight months imprisonment, with a jail term suspended for one year. And her case, says Preamchaipon, isn’t the only one.

“It happens to a lot of the ordinary [citizens], who just want to express their opinion or their concern.” 

These days Preamchaipon’s office is still closely monitored. And she admits that it does impact her work.

“We try to avoid anything that can provoke, so we have to be a little bit cautious and careful, that’s why I said we practice self censorship, but we try not to get used to the practice of self censorship, otherwise we will be useless for the Thai society,” Preamchaipon told me.

But sometimes self-censorship can get the better of you, she admits.

“Sometimes just about thinking out loud, I’m already afraid. Can I think out loud?”

But for veteran journalist Pravit Rojanapreuk – he prefers to think out loud regardless of the pressure.

“Yes, they have detained me twice .They have banned me from travelling abroad. So, it’s real for me, but I think people need to be strong and have fortitude to defend what is right,” said Rojanapreuk.

He was arrested in September last year, hours after tweeting:

“Freedom can't be maintained if we're not willing to defend it.”

He was also detained once before, shortly after the coup in 2014.

“Well, you challenge! You push the limit. And of course from their point of view I crossed the line, that’s why they detained me twice, that’s why they banned me from travelling outside the country, but you persist and you insist in doing so, insist on refusing phenomenalized censorship, and continue to call strength as strength, and that includes openly calling the regime illegitimate,” stated Rojanapreuk.

Upon his release, he tweeted:

“My ideology is intact.”

University student Cholticha says the state of fear is real, but they can’t just bow down.

“We are afraid of the threats from officials or people who think differently. But we feel we should go on, campaigning on human rights and democracy issues, for broader understanding about what we are trying to do.”

So what can be done?

Veteran journalist Rojanapreuk has these words of advice.

“I think people have to be very brave and look long term. I think the struggle is, in defending the limited freedom that we still have. If we keep on giving in to the military regime, I think sooner or later we may realize we don’t have anything left.”

 

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