Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in Thailand need special protection as they are encountering significant human rights challenges created by state and non-state actors. Angkhana Neelapaijit, member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and former National Human Right Commissioner of Thailand, and Chonthicha ‘Lookate’ Jangrew, co-founder of the Democracy Restoration Group and a monarchy reformist, outlined some of these challenges in their presentation at the Asia Centre’s 7th International Conference on Freedom of Expression at the panel ‘Women Human Rights Defenders in Thailand’.
The panel was convened by Asia Centre, with the support of the Embassy of Switzerland in Thailand. It examined the case of Thailand and unpacked the challenges WHRDs face when exercising their freedom of expression in their work to protect fundamental human rights. Conradin Rasi, Chargé d’Affaires a.i of the Swiss Embassy, in his opening remarks at the conference, noted that freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democracy and that human rights defenders play a central role in promoting and protecting this freedom. However, he noted that human rights defenders are working under increasing constraints.
The panel discussed how, in Thailand, WHRDs have become targets of attacks including physical assaults and threats from the state and non-state actors. In recent years, the frequency of such attacks has increased, and new trends of attacks in the form of judicial harassment, online bullying and psychological torture have emerged.
The wide circulation of online disinformation attacking human rights defenders has been alarming. In Facebook’s February 2021 Coordination Inauthentic Behavior Report, it was reported that information operations (IOs) against activists have ‘links to the Thai Military’s Internal Security Operations Command.’ In some instances, the IOs have fed government supporters with narratives and imagery of WHRDs as “sexually seductive traitors” who invite foreign interventions. This has contributed to the reproduction of sexist messages and driven some supporters of the government to sexually harass WHRDs both online and in real life.
While the targets are not specific to any particular gender, such operations have also impacted the mental health of WHRDs and undermined their self-esteem. WHRDs disproportionately suffer from gendered disinformation and sexual bullying than their male counterparts. However, the police have been particularly inert and unenthusiastic when it comes to cases involving online bullying against WHRDs. In most cases, WHRDs are asked to collect evidence by themselves and thus bear the burden of proof. All of this leaves some WHRDs with psychological traumas or Post Trauma Stress Disorder (PTSD). Consequently, they have to spend considerable amounts of money on their mental health therapy.
Another trend is judicial harassment in the form of Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPP). This is often used to derail WHRDs’ campaigns and intimidate other women from exercising their freedom of expression. WHRDs are also sued by accusers for defamation; this increases their financial burden as they have to hire lawyers, pay for court fees, and take leave from work to attend their trials.
Through this judicial process comes the enforcement of electronic monitoring devices (EMs). EMs were primarily introduced to track those on-bail for narcotics related crimes. These days, some WHRDs who are charged for their advocacy are also forced to wear EMs on their ankles as part of the bail conditions. If they refuse, bail will be denied. The wearing of EMs also creates an assumption in the public mindset that WHRDs are criminals even though they are charged for expressing political views. Therefore, wearers of EMs are not afforded the presumption of innocence stated in the Thai Constitution and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as the wearing of EMs have led the public to assume that what they are accused of is true. As a result, it impacts further on the mental health of WHRDs who are subjected to wearing EMs. EMs also restrict freedom of movement of the wearers. For one, police can track their location using information sent by EMs. It is important to note, for safety reasons, airlines do not allow the devices to be in flight. This ultimately obstructs WHRDs who wear EMs from travelling by plane.
To improve the situation of WHRDs in Thailand, Asia Centre has three key recommendations that Thailand can adopt.
One, the need for an anti-SLAPP law that would stem any attempts to levy politically-motivated charges and fines in order to silence or intimidate WHRDs. This would allow WHRDs to continue with judicial procedure and seek their justice while fighting for human rights.
Two, funds from the Office of Justice Fund must be accessible and available to all WHRDs and should comprehensively cover expenses related to the cases. The Office of Justice Fund is under the Ministry of Justice. Under Justice Fund Act 2015, the Office provides financial aid to those whose rights are violated so that they can afford legal procedure fees. Presently, WHRDs find that it is difficult for them to receive financial aid to fight their cases. Additionally, the existing public mental health services do not respond to the needs of WHRDs affected by sexist, inhumane verbal assaults. Therefore, the fund must cover therapy sessions for these WHRDs.
Three, Thailand implements a law that targets gender-based harassment by state authorities and others. This is a key recommendation from international mechanisms and bodies such as Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Committee against Torture (CAT), Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), ICCPR, and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Unless such a law is in place, WHRDs will continue to suffer from gender-based harassment.
WHRDs in Thailand are encountering gender-based reprisals from the state and non-state actors for exercising their freedom of expression. These take place in the forms of physical assaults, online bullying, and judicial harassment. In spite of these challenges, Thai WHRDs continue to persevere, and we need to support their efforts.