Thai PM ends practice of military trials for civilians

People on security charges will be tried in civilian courts but order is not backdated

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan- o-cha has repealed a requirement putting civilians accused of security offences under military trial.

The practice, which has attracted intense criticism since it was imposed after the 2014 military coup, came to an end yesterday with an order published in the Royal Gazette.

Civilians accused of lese majeste, violating the junta's orders, or possessing war firearms or ammunition will now be tried in civilian courts instead of military courts.

But the change does not affect the hundreds of civilians whose cases are already being heard in military courts. They include prominent dissidents and anti-coup activists. Soldiers, meanwhile, will continue to have the powers to search and arrest suspects, alongside policemen.

The order issued says: "Over the past two years, the country has been in order, and people have supported and cooperated in the country's development, the planned reforms and reconciliation - as shown in the peaceful referendum and the overwhelming support of the (draft) Constitution by the people."

The restoration of civilian trials would allow everybody to "exercise their rights and perform their duties and also be protected by the laws under the new Constitution which is due very soon".

  • 1,811

    Number of civilians who underwent military trial between May 22, 2014 and May 31 this year

    517

    Number of cases still in military court as of May 31 this year

This was also "in line with the rule of law and human rights principles", it adds.

Voters in Asean's second-largest economy accepted a military- backed draft Constitution in a referendum on Aug 7, paving the way for fresh elections at the end of next year. The draft Charter allows the military government to appoint the Senate, which will be given the power to choose a prime minister, together with the Lower House. The future premier also need not come from elections.

While some quarters are pushing for General Prayut to take the reins again through this route, the Premier himself has been coy about his intentions.

Ms Poonsuk Charoen, the documentation manager of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), said that while the restoration of civilian trial was welcome news, the civilians put on military trial before yesterday "still do not have access to independent justice".

"This group's cases should be transferred to civilian courts," she told The Straits Times.

According to information compiled by TLHR, 1,811 civilians underwent a military trial from May 22, 2014 - when the coup took place - to May 31 this year.

Out of that group, the vast majority of cases were related to the possession of arms and weapons, while 63 cases were related to insult or defamation of the monarchy, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail on each count.

As of May 31, there were still 517 civilian cases pending in military courts.

In one recent case, the military arrested eight people in April for satirising Gen Prayut on a Facebook page. They were indicted last month for sedition and computer crime.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2016, with the headline 'Thai PM ends practice of military trials for civilians'. Print Edition | Subscribe