The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Thailand is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Thailand is not a State Party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
There is not yet a regional human rights treaty to which South-East Asian nations can adhere, although a non-binding human rights declaration was issued by the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2013. Paragraph 24 of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration provides that: "Every person has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly." Thailand is a founder member of ASEAN.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Under Section 44 of the 2017 Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand:
A person shall enjoy the liberty to assemble peacefully and without arms.
The restriction of such liberty under paragraph one shall not be imposed except by virtue of a provision of law enacted for the purpose of maintaining security of the State, public safety, public order or good morals, or for protecting the rights or liberties of other persons.
The 2015 Public Assembly Act is the primary legislation governing assemblies in Thailand. This Law prohibits public assemblies that obstruct the entrance to, impede the performance of duties of, or hinder access to service of, the following: State agencies’ office; airport, wharf, rail station or any other public transport station; hospital, education institution and religious establishment; embassy or consulate of foreign State or office of international organization; or other places as notified by the Minister. The Act also prohibits marches between 6 pm and 6 am.
Under Section 10, any public assembly must be notified 24 hours in advance. Any public assembly that fails to comply with the notification requirement is an unlawful assembly. Authorised assemblies also need to take place in the time frame specified by the organisers.
A violent act by one of the participants in an assembly also seemingly allows the dispersal of the entire assembly.
In its national report for its 2016 Universal Periodic Review, Thailand stated that:
In July 2015, Thailand has enforced the Public Assembly Act of 2015 with a view to ensuring that public assembly be conducted in a peaceful manner and does not interrupt public order and well-being of the people, while respecting people’s right to freedom of assembly.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
Under the 2015 Public Assembly Act, where the use of force is unavoidable, the use of force and the application of crowd control equipment shall only be done where this is necessary.
Under existing law governing use of force by the police, the Royal Thai Police are empowered to use reasonable force in effecting an arrest. The law on police use of force is, though, in the process of being revised. The draft currently out for consultation, though, does not address police use of force against civilians.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
Domestic legislation does not appear to regulate the use of firearms during assemblies.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2017 Concluding Observations on Thailand, the Human Rights Committee expressed its concern at
reports of the arbitrary detention of hundreds of individuals exercising their right to assembly and/or freedom of expression for “attitude adjustments” after the 2014 coup, and that such individuals were reportedly often detained without charge and held incommunicado at undisclosed places of detention for periods of up to seven days, with no judicial oversight or safeguards against ill-treatment and without access to a lawyer. It is further concerned that upon release, detainees were reportedly compelled to sign a written agreement not to travel abroad and refrain from expressing political views, and that failure to comply involved the risk of up to two years of imprisonment.
The Committee was further concerned
about the excessive restrictions imposed on the freedom of peaceful assembly since the military coup of 2014, in particular the strict banning of any public gathering of more than five people and political gatherings of more than four people. It is also concerned about the provisions of the Public Assembly Act (2015) that establish criminal penalties for failing to provide prior notification to authorities regarding the organization of peaceful assemblies. The Committee is particularly concerned about the arrest of hundreds of people for having organized or taken part in peaceful gatherings....
The Committee called on the authorities to
effectively guarantee and protect the freedom of peaceful assembly and avoid restrictions that do not respond to the requirements under article 4 of the Covenant. In particular, it should refrain from imposing detention on individuals who are exercising their rights and who do not present a serious risk to national security or public safety.
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2021 report on Thailand:
In March 2020, under the guise of measures to combat COVID-19, Prime Minister Prayuth announced that the state would use broad powers granted by a 2005 emergency decree to protect the “safety of the people,” including by prohibiting public assembly and exercising expanded powers of censorship and arrest. The decree, originally scheduled to last a month, was repeatedly renewed; in October, the government declared a more stringent “severe state of emergency” in response to youth-led demonstrations, which prohibited gatherings of more than five people. While the “severe” decree was revoked after a week, the government reintroduced the restrictions in December, citing a rise COVID-19 cases. Human rights groups condemned the government’s aggressive use of force and toleration of violence by civilian regime sympathizers during protests in November. More than 170 peaceful protesters were charged with sedition, lèse-majesté, or violations of the prohibition on public gatherings in 2020.
In mid-October 2020, Human Rights Watch denounced the unnecessary use of water cannon by Thai police against peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok on 16 October "in violation of international human rights standards". The authorities acted under newly announced state of emergency powers, "which allow the security forces to commit abuses with impunity".