How Thailand's military junta has cracked down on dissent

A news conference by Amnesty International, set to unveil details on torture by the military and police, was cancelled after Thai authorities threatened to arrest two of the speakers. 

Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters/File
Military police officers guard the gates after a prison pick-up truck believed to be carrying suspects of the 2015 blast at the Erawan Shrine arrives at the military court in Bangkok, Thailand, on Aug. 23, 2016. Amnesty International speakers set to hold a news conference Wednesday to release a report detailing allegations of torture at the hands of the military and police canceled the event at the risk of arrest.

Police and soldiers in Thailand have committed at least 74 cases of torture and other ill treatment since the military seized power in a 2014 coup, according to an Amnesty International report released on Wednesday.

Martial law and post-coup decrees, wrote the human-rights group, have created "legal incentives" for Thai authorities to target suspected insurgents and political opponents, in addition to migrants, ethnic minorities, suspected drug users, and other members of vulnerable sectors of society.

The report details several torture methods used by authorities, including beatings, waterboarding, suffocation by plastic bags, and electric shocks of the genitals. It represents perhaps the most comprehensive account of military and police abuses to emerge since the ruling junta muscled out a populist government weakened by months of street protests.

"Empowered by laws of their own making, Thailand's military rulers have allowed a culture of torture to flourish, where there is no accountability for the perpetrators and no justice for the victims," said Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International's Director for South East Asia and the Pacific, in a statement accompanying the report's release.

"An officer gets punished if he doesn't get results," a former junior commander told Amnesty International. "In the army, people use force to control, not thought. An order is final.... If you don't get results, you will be punished."

But the report also seems to have raised hackles with the junta, which rejects accusations of human rights abuses. A news conference on the report announced by Amnesty on Wednesday in Bangkok was abruptly cancelled after authorities threatened to arrest two speakers from the group whom they said did not have work permits.

At a separate forum, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha defended the military’s conduct toward "so-called political prisoners."

"I hope you understand, I've been very forgiving," he said, according to the Associated Press. "Only a few people suffer because they want to violate things all the time. And they blame the government for human rights violations. If I violate that much would I be able to stand here? But they try to get themselves prosecuted so they can tell it to the world."

After the 2014 coup, The Christian Science Monitor’s Simon Montlake and Flora Bagenal took note of its strong ideological flavor when compared to the long history of coups in Thailand: 

Since 1932, the end of absolute monarchy in Thailand, formerly Siam, the country has seen 12 successful military coups, most recently in 2006. Each time, a group of officers seize power, tear up the Constitution, and start over. Most coups are bloodless and telegraphed in advance, allowing ousted leaders to flee into exile or sue for peace....

Plus ça change. But for all its familiarity, this coup represents a much sharper turn for Thailand than previous putsches that replaced one military clique with another, barely rippling the surface of daily life. “The explanations for many coups in Thailand have centered on factionalism within the military. This coup has a real ideological component,” says Michael Montesano, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

By seizing power now, the military has stepped into a bitter, winner-takes-all political conflict that for nearly a decade has polarized society along class and regional lines. While the generals present themselves as neutral arbiters, the coup represents a smackdown of an elected government and a victory for protesters whose campaign had fizzled.

Among the cases of torture detailed in the Amnesty report is that of a man arrested by the Army and held in an undisclosed location for seven days, where he was tortured repeatedly.

"Please shoot me," he begged his captors on the seventh day, according to the report, "and send my corpse to my family."

After the cancelation of the news conference on Wednesday, Amnesty legal adviser Yuval Ginbar told reporters, "We know that the current government does not accept criticism very well," according to the AP.

"But what is happening in the unofficial places of detention – people being beaten up, people being suffocated, people being water boarded – and what happens in police roadblocks where suspected drug users are forced to urinate in public or are coerced into paying bribes to get released, this is more important than what we're facing here," Mr. Ginbar said.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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