Thailand's new assembly law 'will hinder but not stop dedicated protests'

Thailand's new assembly law 'will hinder but not stop dedicated protests'
PHOTO: Reuters

The pavement in front of the Tourism and Sports Ministry in Bangkok was glazed as usual by a hot, strong noon sun. What was unusual however was a group of activist occupants hanging fabric banners which read "Who killed the Andaman [Sea]?" on both sides of the pavement.

They were members of the "Save the Andaman from Coal Network" group. For three years, the group has been urging successive governments to drop plans to build a coal-fired power plant and a seaport in Krabi province as well as in other southern provinces along the Andaman coast. They said the plants would generate pollution, destroy the environment and tourism in the area.

Anger over the government plan has spurred them to stage a hunger strike.

"This is our sixth day here" said group member Sakkamon Seangdara, sitting a few metres away from his wary fellow protesters. "But I'm not on a full [hunger] strike with them. I need the energy to manage things," he said, referring to his duties from painting banners to talking with visitors, including the authorities.

While the group was allowed to demonstrate - despite the ban on gatherings of five or more people - they were still visited by police and soldiers from time to time.

"On our third day here, they told us we should remove the banners without giving any reason, but we insisted on hanging them out. The officers haven't reacted so far, though," another activist, who preferred to stay anonymous, said.

"We can stay here only from 8am to 6pm, which means we have to go to other places to sleep. We have to do that, otherwise we could be arrested," he added.

This happened in the middle of July, before the new 2015 Public Assembly Act takes effect. Once it comes into force on August 13, if the group still wishes to demonstrate, it will have to follow rules - notify police at least 24 hours before assembling, not use loudspeakers from midnight to 6am, stay away from specified places, not block entrances or exits or disturb state offices. That includes the ministry.

"It is likely we will have to face such a law, but I don't think we will be affected much...We simply demonstrate peacefully and cause no fuss to anyone not involved," commented Sakkamon of the new Act. He said the group didn't care if they break the law, as they had to continue the protest regardless.

"If we're caught, we will just have to fight [through the courts]. It's as simple as that," he said.

Sakkamon said he understood the new law to an extent, that it may help prevent possible political turbulence.

"That's a good intention from the government. But you know what's the best they could do? They could seriously listen to us and face us, so we won't have to demonstrate further."

While the environmental activists feel only subtle pressure from the new Act, some former leaders of political protests activists voiced more serious concern.

Panthep Puapongpan, a former leader and spokesperson of the yellow-shirt People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), said the Act was a "useless" tool to deal with demonstrations. He believed that as long as people's voices and suffering is overlooked, no law could prevent people from democratically demonstrating their power through protest.

"As we learnt from history, |those who have come out to demonstrate against government are not afraid of punishment - by law or even death."

Panthep thought that the Act was a double-edged sword. "On the bright side, Thai society can enjoy order and security through this Act.

"However, such an Act can also be a brilliant shield for [future, possible] unjust and corrupt government, since it allows such governments to legally limit protesters, as well as to restrict people power," he explained.

Panthep also elaborated on what he thought was "the real intention" behind the enactment of the Act.

"Our society and government have grown to become immune to demonstration over the past decade. This Act will only lessen and mitigate the impact and pressure of demonstration on government."

On a different political side, Thida Thavornseth Tojirakarn, former chairwoman of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), had much the same feeling about the new law. She agreed that the protest law would be relatively ineffective toward big gatherings or demonstrations.

"The Act will actually affect only smaller scale gatherings or movements. For most of the time, these groups fight purely for social causes such as the environment, fair wages and rice farming issues. So in the future, it's going to be difficult for them to mobilise their movements," Thida said.

She said while similar laws had been effective, mostly in developed countries, it did not mean it [would] work in Thailand.

"In developed countries, most demonstrations are for demonstrators' own benefit. That's why this kind of law has been effective in terms of minimising demonstrations' impact on society. Also, there are rarely any political demonstrations in such countries, as people tend to have sufficient confidence in their governments.

"But in Thailand, on the contrary, most protests are against political bodies and the legitimacy of the governments themselves." Thida said.

For academics like Sukhum Nuansakul, a political analyst and former rector of Ramkhamhaeng University, enforcement of the Act weakens demonstrators' bargaining power against government.

"This is also a perfect time to enact such an Act, as the current government is civil servant-based. The implementation of the Act will surely ease their work flow, especially for the police and the Army, who have to deal with security issues," Sukhum said, adding that governments in the past had longed for this kind of law.

Sukhum also spoke of how foreign countries would respond to the enactment of the Act, considering it would limit democratic practices in the Kingdom "even more".

In the end, there was also a question of how effective the new law would be.

Countries like Singapore have had tight control over public assemblies for decades, he said, but it should be noted that the situation was very different in Thailand.

"Singaporeans have spent their lives living strictly under regulations while Thai people have been quietly indulged," he said.

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