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Political Anniversary in Thailand Puts Focus on Freedoms

Supporters of anti-coup activists gather outside a police station, cheering them on and gesturing in Bangkok, June 24, 2015.
Supporters of anti-coup activists gather outside a police station, cheering them on and gesturing in Bangkok, June 24, 2015.

Pro-democracy activists in Thailand are using the anniversary of the founding of the country's democracy to protest the ruling military junta, which seized power from the elected government in a bloodless coup last year. But Thailand's current rulers are showing little tolerance for criticism.

In the early morning light a small gathering of Thai political activists and poets gathered in central Bangkok, laying flowers at a monument marking events 83 years ago during the toppling of Thailand’s last absolute monarchy.

Reports said police monitoring Wednesday's gathering did not interfere.

The official reaction stood in contrast to recent crackdowns against small gatherings of students, the most recent in May, marking the first anniversary of the military’s takeover with promises of political reform and fresh elections. Up to 40 activists were detained for holding peaceful rallies amid signs of increasing intolerance to free speech by the military government.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch criticized the military’s dealing with the students, including a group known as Dao Din from the northern Khon Kaen University.

Thai political scientist Titipol Phakdeewanich, speaking to VOA from London, says the military is stifling public debate about political reform.

“If you look at what is happening now we are not allowed to say when we think; especially one of the things I am concerned because we are talking about the new constitution," he said. "But we cannot say anything freely if I want to say that I disagree with the constitution. And if you look at the issue of Dao Din they did not do much. They have the right to do what they have done.”

In recent weeks the military leadership has blocked Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand forums about human rights since the May 2014 coup and Thailand’s defamation laws aimed at protecting the institution of the monarchy.

Officials have also called a meeting of up to 200 members of the press next week for discussions about reporting.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha regularly criticizes local media and on-going questioning over when the government will decide on general elections, expected in early 2017.

Rights activist groups, such as Forum Asia, have called on the military to respect the right of peaceful assembly as a key step to the democracy the government has laid out in its "roadmap to reform."

Each Friday, Prime Minister Prayut sets out the government's record and plans for the country’s future.

East Asia Program Officer for Forum Asia, Pimsiri Petchnamrob says the government should respect free speech as part of its "road map plans."

“If they really want to build genuine democracy in Thailand based on the road map or whatever they should be open for different opinions and expressions," she said. "If they are being genuine about what they have been preaching every Friday they should listen and respect different expressions and opinions. What they are doing right now is suppression, which is not going to help any cause of national reconciliation or even building up democracy as they have been propagandizing.”

Analysts say the government fears student movements may gain momentum, triggering potentially volatile street protests. But analysts say such suppression simply undermines the military’s ability to stay in power and oversee promised reforms.