BANGKOK (AP) — Royalist activists in Thailand say they will present a petition with 1.2 million signatures to the government on Thursday calling for it to shut down the country’s branch of the human rights organization Amnesty International.
The activists, members of various small nationalist groups, say Amnesty International is a threat to the country’s peace and security because it criticized a court ruling that said calls for reform of the country’s constitutional monarchy are illegal.
The monarchy is revered by many Thais and until recently was almost universally treated as a sacrosanct pillar of Thai identity. Its reputation is fiercely guarded by the country’s ruling elite, including the courts and the military.
Critics of the royal institution charge it has too much influence in politics and is not accountable.
The petition against Amnesty International, which originated last November, has been organized alongside a longer-term effort to enact a law to increase regulation of non-governmental organizations, an action critics say threatens free expression and is meant to intimidate criticism of the government.
The Center of People to Protect the Monarchy, one of several groups involved in the campaign, said the interior ministry will be asked to verify the signers of the petition.
“These 1.2 million names don’t want to see this organization undermine national security, destroy the monarchy and create conflicts in the country,” said Seksakol Atthawong, a vice minister in the Office of the Prime Minister who has been active in both the petition campaign and efforts to control NGOs.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who came to power in a 2014 military coup, has not commented on the petition but said in November that he had asked police and the interior ministry to see if Amnesty International has broken any laws in its support for protesters advocating reforms of the monarchy.
The petition was launched after Amnesty International criticized the Constitutional Court for ruling that three pro-democracy activists who called for reform of the monarchy were committing sedition by attempting to overthrow the nation’s system of government with the king as head of state.
The ruling banned any similar activities in the future by the activists and their organizations and also appeared to effectively prohibit any other calls for reform of the monarchy.
Thailand already has a royal anti-defamation law frequently applied against members of the youth-led pro-democracy movement, which sprung up in 2020. It provides a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for insulting the king and his immediate family.
At least 170 people, including 14 minors, have been charged under the law since November 2020, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a legal rights group.
Amnesty International said in an emailed statement it acknowledges the government’s duty to protect public order and national security.
But it said the authorities “must do so in a manner that is in accordance with international human rights law, and that is proportionate, necessary and fulfills the government’s obligations to ensure and facilitate respect for human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
Vitit Muntarbhorn, a law professor who has worked in the United Nations on human rights issues, said constraints on Amnesty International “will not only affect confidence and international relations, they will also embody regressive steps detrimental to Thailand’s position as a hub for non-governmental organizations and as a crossroads for the international community.”
Thailand’s Cabinet in January approved in principle a draft of a proposed law on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations that would cover NGOs. It would force disclosure of many operating details, including sources of funding, and prohibit vaguely defined activities considered detrimental to national security or public order.
Over the past decade, dozens of countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe, especially those with authoritarian governments, have sought to control NGOs “by creating laws that subject them and their staff to surveillance, nightmarish bureaucratic hurdles and the ever-present threat of imprisonment,” Amnesty International said in a 2019 report.