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First-ever law to control public assembly takes effect in Thailand

Members of the New Democracy Movement activist group and supporters hold up pictures of the 14 students who had been held for holding anti-coup protests, during a rally outside the military court in Bangkok, 7 July 2015
Members of the New Democracy Movement activist group and supporters hold up pictures of the 14 students who had been held for holding anti-coup protests, during a rally outside the military court in Bangkok, 7 July 2015

REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

This statement was originally published on seapa.org on 18 August 2015.

By Sinfah Tunsarawuth


Thailand's first ever law to specifically deal with public gatherings came into force on 13 August 2015, laying down stricter rules for such political activity. The new law imposes high penalties of up to 10-year jail terms for severe offences such as causing disturbance or disruption to public services.

Known as the Public Assembly Act of 2015, the law is steep in details on procedures to abide by before the public can exercise its right to freedom of assembly. The law outlines various measures responsible authorities can take to allow and control such political gatherings.

Previous administrations have mulled over such a specific law in an attempt to control the massive demonstrations that have rocked the country since 2005. In its absence, each government ended up using other laws including traffic laws and the emergency act to quell the often rowdy and at times violent political protests, including one that blocked the international airport in 2008.

The current coup government of Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, which took power from Yingluck administration on 22 May 2014, defended the new law as a necessary tool to regulate public gatherings, arguing that previous political gatherings have not been organized and controlled appropriately and led to fatal violence and disruptions of public service.

However, critics decried the law's broadly-worded grounds that can be used to deny demonstration permits; as well as its tortuous procedures that could be abused to infringe on people's civil liberties guaranteed by both Thai and international law.

Permission required

The law passed by the military-installed National Legislative Assembly in July requires any person who wants to call for a public rally to seek permission from authorities at least 24 hours before the planned activity in a notification which must state the purposes, date, duration and venue of the assembly.

Authorities, including the police chief of the venue of the planned rally, can prohibit the activity if they view it as against the law, or if rally organizers do not rectify measures that authorities have demanded.

However, rally organizers who do not agree with such orders can appeal to the immediate superior of the authorities, whose decision is regarded as final under the Public Assembly Act.

Rally organizers could still appeal such a decision through the Administrative Court.

If the organizers of a rally were not able to notify the authorities 24 hours before the planned event, they could seek leniency from a senior police officer in charge of the area.

Compliance demanded

The Act says that any public assembly that does not comply with its provisions is deemed as "unlawful public assembly", and the authorities can demand its cancellation within a specified period of time.

It also says the organizers of a rally must not use loud speakers between midnight and 6.00 am. In addition, marching or relocation of the rally from 6.00 pm until 6.00 am of the following morning is also prohibited, unless ordered or sanctioned by the authorities.

Rallies have to be called off within the time period specified by the organizers, who can also seek to extend the duration by notifying the authorities 24 hours before the end of such period.

Authorities can also seek a court order to enforce a demand to the organizers to call off an assembly deemed unlawful, in case the latter refuse to heed their initial orders. The law requires the court to consider such request immediately.

Controlled areas

If participants of a rally refuse to end the rally within the time period as specified by the court, the rally site and its surroundings will then be declared as "controlled areas," which will now fall under the authority of the chief of the Bangkok metropolitan police or provincial governors for other provinces. These higher authorities will be responsible for ending the rally as demanded by the court.

At this stage, the Prime Minister, who is the caretaker of this Act, can also assign other officials to oversee the ending of the rally.

If there are still rally participants in the controlled areas after the specified period of time for them to leave, the Act now regards them as "offenders", who could face arrest by the authorities and a jail term of up to three years. The authorities can now also search, seize or dismantle any property at the rally site.

Similar treatment will be applied at a rally where the participants turn to violence that could become harmful to other people to the point of causing wider unrest.

The Act, however, does not empower any authorities to use any force or violent means against rally participants under any circumstance.

Peaceful defined

Generally, the Public Assembly Act requires any rally to be peaceful and its participants must not bear any weapons.

Rallies may not be held within 150 meters from any palace of the royal family, or within the compound of the parliament, the Government House or courts.

If necessitated by public security and public order, the national police chief can bar any rally within 50 meters from the compound of the parliament, Government House or courts, taking into consideration the number of rally participants and its circumstances.

The Act also prohibits any rally from obstructing the entrance or exit of, or disturb the work or the use of services of state agencies, airports, ports, train stations, public transport stations, hospitals, educational institutions, religious places, embassies, consulates or international organization offices.

The law allows state agencies to arrange for venues for holding public assemblies, which will then not require any permission for such activities.

The Act is not applicable to assemblies for royal ceremonies; religious or cultural events; entertainment, sports or tourism events; gatherings in educational institutions; meetings as provided by law; academic meetings; and gatherings during election periods.

Penalties imposed

Generally, penalty for rally organizers or participants who do not comply with the requirement for permissions under the Act is a maximum imprisonment of six months and/or a amount of up to 10,000 baht fine.

Disobeying orders to leave a rally site could meet the offender up to a year in prison and/or a 20,000 baht fine.

Furthermore, any person who is not an authorized official under the Act and who carries any weapon into a rally site could face a jail term of up to three years. If the weapon is a gun or explosive, the penalty is raised to up to five years.

And if organizers or rally participants cause any public transport system or public utilities to break down temporarily or permanently, the organizers could face an imprisonment of as high as 10 years.

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