14-year-old accused of insulting the king. The 13-year-old who was physically dragged out of the restaurant by the police. A 17-year-old boy was riddled with rubber bullets and beaten.
These are some of the stories revealed in a new Amnesty International report documenting alleged human rights abuses involving children who have taken part in Thailand’s protracted protests, released on Wednesday.
Sainam, who had previously been shot with rubber bullets, was a regular participant in pro-democracy protests, but the then 17-year-old planned to skip the protests on the day of his arrest in 2021.
Then he saw that his friend was injured.
“I saw that my friend had been shot on the news, so I went there to see my friend and when I got there it was chaotic and the police were running and trying to catch everyone who was there,” Sainam told Al Jazeera.
“So I ran and they shot me in the leg but I kept running so they shot me in the back and they threw me on the floor and beat me with a baton and a riot shield.”
In nearly 300 cases, defendants who were children at the time of the alleged offenses face criminal charges, many of which are related to the 2020-2021 protest movement. Amnesty says the actions violate their freedom of expression, separate families and threaten their future.
“Most of them face a potential prison sentence,” said Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong, regional researcher at Amnesty. It says most of the documented cases, about 200, were opened under the state of emergency decree implemented between March 2020 and October 2022 to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“Over the past two years, there has been widespread weaponization of the COVID restrictions to curb people’s ability to protest,” Chanatip said.
Sainam first became involved in political activism when he was in high school, attending events on university campuses and participating in flash mobs, before joining larger anti-government demonstrations in the streets.
“Our government in Thailand comes after a coup eight years ago. They say they came through elections, but they really didn’t,” he said, referring to the 2014 military seizure of power and the 2019 elections, which were heavily skewed in favor of the military-backed party.
The protests, which demanded greater democratization, also broke a national taboo by openly calling for reforms to the monarchy, including the repeal of Article 112, which makes it a criminal offense to defame, insult or threaten members of the royal family. In November 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled that even calls for reform qualify as an attempt to overthrow the monarchy.
Amnesty says that of the children facing criminal charges, 17 have been charged with insulting majesty under Article 112, which carries a prison sentence of three to 15 years.
Sainam was one of the first students to be charged with insulting majesty, as he took part in a fake fashion show in 2020, when he was just 16 years old. Sainam wore a short black top that resembled the clothes worn by the king before.
“I was confused at first because at the time no student had been charged with this,” he said. “I didn’t know what I could do or what would happen to me.”
Even if not convicted, Chanatip says the lengthy trial process is already stealing children’s futures.
“These children are likely to face months, or worse years, of criminal proceedings that will deny them opportunities such as going to school, studying, employment because they will be focused on these proceedings,” he said, adding “those facing this ongoing threat that they have a criminal record that could lead to discrimination in the future.”
Sainam, who said he faces some 20 charges, has to go to court about 10 times a month, interrupting his studies.
“It lasts all day, so I can’t do anything else that day,” he said, adding that he has to be accompanied by his parents, so his father often misses work. Sainam’s passport has also been revoked, with authorities claiming he poses a threat to national security.
Wannaphat Jenroumjit, a lawyer with Thai Lawyers for Human Rights who covers northern Thailand, says his organization has documented numerous cases of “physical abuse” of children during arrests.
“For example, hitting young people in the body while they are being arrested, crowding until the person falls down and then repeatedly hitting or stomping with a bat, hitting a motorcycle while riding to make it overturn, using rubber bullets,” he said, adding this treatment “is definitely against Thai law and international principles.”
Wannaphat said that while Thailand had “adopted international principles” on child protection, there were broad exceptions to the law that allowed “officials a great deal of discretion”.
“Amnesty does not comment on whether the law violates what the children or the protesters are doing,” Chanatip said. “Our position is that these laws in themselves are not in accordance with international standards. They exist to target people’s right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.”
Discrimination of minorities
There was also a clear pattern of discrimination against LGBTQ and ethnic minority children, according to the rights group.
“The Juvenile and Family Court Counseling Center routinely asked children if they had had sex with a person of the same sex,” Amnesty’s report said. One LGBTQ defendant told Amnesty he felt: “This type of questioning suggests that there is something wrong with the LGBTI person.”
A 17-year-old Malay Muslim girl reported being intimidated by authorities after attending a peaceful gathering where they wore traditional clothing and discussed local history. Another 17-year-old girl was arrested for participating in a land rights protest and charged under the Emergency Ordinance, but was denied an interpreter in court despite speaking Karenni as her first language.
In response to the report, Thailand’s Ministry of Justice told Amnesty that “freedom of thought, expression and assembly … are fundamental rights for a democratic society” and are guaranteed by the 2017 Constitution, promulgated under military rule.
The press release states that the trials of child protesters are not intended to “restrict rights and freedoms or … target dissidents.”
Amnesty itself has also been the target of legal threats in Thailand, largely because of its work advocating for those accused of insulting majesty. In late 2021, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who first took power in a 2014 coup, promised to investigate Amnesty and consider expelling the organization from the country, after receiving a complaint from hardline royalists.
Chanatip said Amnesty did not experience “any direct intimidation” while working on its latest report.
“But Amnesty is still facing a campaign against us domestically in Thailand, which is all the more reason why we have to be here. This shows that intolerance towards the discourse on human rights is growing in the country,” he said.
Sainam said he was given the option to attend a “deterrence program” rather than face criminal charges, but declined.
“I don’t want to go there because it’s not my fault. If you want to go to that program, you have to say you’re guilty,” he said, adding that he’s already used to the court proceedings against him. “It became my normal life to go to court.”