On Oct 21, 14 human rights organizations voiced their opposition to the Internal Security Bill which had been approved by the cabinet on Oct 16, and is being forwarded to the National Legislative Assembly to pass into law.
Prime Minister Gen Surayud Chulanont and Defence Ministry spokesperson Lt Gen Pitsanu Puchakarn have stated the need to pass the bill within the term of the current government, but the NLA's coordinating committee or whip has made a unanimous decision to return the bill to the cabinet for revision.
Campaign for Human Rights chair Somchai Homla-or said that democracy and the rule of law require that the people clear understand what is prohibited by law and why. The broad definition of internal security in this bill allows the government and the officials to wield arbitrary power. The people cannot know what they are prohibited from doing. What is most worrisome is the centralization of power in one single agency under the excuse of internal security.
"We're going to have a Gestapo-like powerful security agency to control and interfere in all other agencies, destroying the system of checks and balance and outside the courts' jurisdiction. Who will the people turn to in cases where their rights are violated?," Somchai asked.
Union for Civil Liberty (UCL) secretary-general Pairoj Polpetch said that the current version of the bill had been revised on some controversial points. Although the person who will hold the post of Director of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) has been changed to the Prime Minister instead of the Army Chief, in practice the Premier still can authorize the Army Chief as Deputy Director to act on his behalf.
And Article 14 of the bill states that ISOC can use its power under normal circumstances, and can set up a local operations command on top of the existing regular structures of the security agencies. Article 6 says that the Cabinet can pass a resolution to appoint ISOC personnel to all other agencies including even local administrative bodies, and the cabinet can instruct any ministry to authorize ISOC to do its job.
"This bill authorizes ISOC to control the whole country. It can be said that this is going to be a state within a state," Pairoj said.
He added that the bill also authorizes ISOC to order the break up of demonstrations, despite the fact that a demonstration is a legitimate tool for public participation guaranteed in the 2007 charter. Passage of this law will immediately abort public participation. Besides, orders of the ISOC Director are not subject to scrutiny, and the authorities who follow these orders are not liable to either criminal or civil punishment.
"If it is claimed that security issues are the reason [for this law], we already have enough laws. With the upcoming general elections, this government, as a caretaker government, should not pass any law that will have a long-term effect on the country and people's rights and freedoms," Pairoj said.
Sunai Pasuk from the international organization Human Rights Watch said that international rights advocates have been monitoring the issue since the first draft of the bill came out. The bill is problematic in various points such as the appointment of ISOC personnel to any agency. There have been examples of appointing private individuals to work in the capacity of state authorities, such as the case of private firms being hired by the CIA to interrogate and torture prisoners. And ISOC will be authorized to detain people for 6 months without accountability.
"If the bill is passed, it will interesting to see whether the law will be used to suppress people who vote for the wrong side in the upcoming general elections," Sunai said.
Angkana Neelaphaijit of the Working Group for Justice and Peace raised the example of what has happened in the southernmost provinces under ISOC Region 4. Villages have been surrounded, and hundreds of people have been detained without clear evidence. And now they are detained in occupational training camps for 4 months in military bases. The detainees have asked the provincial courts to order their immediate release. And it was revealed in court that the 4th Army Commander has issued an order prohibiting the detainees to enter their home provinces.
"This act goes completely against the rule of law. In a democracy, the executive, legislature, and judiciary must be equally important, but this law gives authoritarian power to ISOC," she said.
Campaign for Popular Media Reform Secretary-General Supinya Klangnarong said that this government has attempted to make several laws that infringe on civil rights and liberties, claiming national security. The passage of these laws is illegitimate in terms of both process and content. The laws that have been passed on the media by the NLA all allow the authorities to censor radio, TV, video, movies, and the internet, and to prosecute any offence deemed a threat to the national security, which has a loose meaning, and eventually means the powers that be.
Amnesty International Thailand Director Boonthan Tansuthepverawongse said that Thailand is now at a juncture with one direction to stronger democracy and the other to an authoritarian military state. This bill will pose long-term problems, favouring increased military-style thinking. The public must keep a watchful eye and participate.