By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Leading Thai human rights defenders said there was a growing sense of fear in the country amid judicial and official harassment of activists in an effort to silence criticism.
The police, military and companies working in the food and mining sectors have increasingly turned to Thai laws - including criminal defamation and the Computer Crimes Act - to muzzle activists working on land and labor rights and the environment.
Activists say such lawsuits - including a suspended jail sentence handed to British labor rights activist Andy Hall for defaming a pineapple wholesaler in a report alleging labor abuses at the firm - have a chilling effect.
"It's like killing a chicken in front of a monkey - people are scared," said Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, chair of Amnesty International's Thailand board and director of the local Cross Cultural Foundation, invoking a Thai proverb.
Pornpen, one of three activists charged under the defamation law and Computer Crimes Act for reporting on alleged torture in Thailand's conflict-plagued deep south, said parties who feel wronged spend one day filing a police complaint - triggering a chain reaction of events in the justice system.
"The police send a summons. If we don't go, they send another summons. And then they issue an arrest warrant," she said at a briefing for foreign diplomats and journalists organized by the Canadian embassy in Bangkok on Friday.
"They don't do this to other criminals... If they did this for criminals, then we'd have a safer society."
The Internal Security Operations Command, a military unit focused on national security, accused them of defamation for their reporting on cases of alleged torture in the south.
Charged alongside Pornpen, Anchana Heemmina said police had visited her family earlier this year when she was not home and told her mother to stop Anchana from posting on Facebook.
"When my mother told me, I was so angry, I posted it on Facebook right away," said Anchana, founder of the Duay Jai Group, which supports those imprisoned for crimes related to the insurgency in the south as well as their families.
Asked about criticism that Thai laws were used to silence human rights defenders, government spokesman Major General Weerachon Sukondhapatipak said the military government, which took power in a 2014 coup, was acting within the law.
"Every country has laws. What this government is doing is based on the law. We are in the position to enforce the law... I can only point out that this government's actions are based on our law," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
(Reporting by Alisa Tang @alisatang, editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)