'Can't give up': Rise in attacks against Thai democracy activists

Pro-democracy activists are the target of increasing physical assaults and intimidation since the March elections.

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    'Can't give up': Rise in attacks against Thai democracy activists
    Former military leader and now Thailand's civilian Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha waves as he leaves the Government House in Bangkok [File: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

    Bangkok, Thailand - Democracy activists in Thailand have been the target of increasing physical assaults and intimidation since the March elections - the first since 2014's military coup - that led to the return of military leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha to power.

    Sirawith 'Janew' Seritiwat, one of the most recognisable faces in the Southeast Asian nation's youth-led democracy movements, was attacked earlier this month after he initiated a petition urging upper house senators not to support Prayuth as prime minister.

    The 27-year-old says five unidentified men rushed at him from behind, beating him with wooden sticks.

    "I think the attackers had the intention of killing me," Sirawith told Al Jazeera, his face still bruised and swollen from the attack on the night of June 2.

    "When they were hitting me, they hit my face and my head. They were hitting points on the head where it would be easy to cause intense harm. I think their objective was to kill me or seriously injure me."

    Sirawith's assault followed attacks in May on other democracy activists in what one human rights group has described as a "dangerous new trend" following the March election.

    After months of disputed results, by-elections and disqualifications - including that of the popular leader of the third-placed party Future Forward - the military-appointed upper house backed Prayuth as prime minister.

    James Buchanan, a PhD candidate at the City University of Hong Kong and researcher on Thai history and politics, said that the attacks come at a sensitive time.

    "Some would say the attacks simply reflect the fact that the stakes are now higher as the junta tries to hold onto power by pseudo-parliamentary means, but I don't think so," Buchanan said.

    "My guess is that the attacks are a consequence of the appearance of a lot of new players in the political game, a host of political parties and influential provincial politicians, some with quite nefarious reputations, who are seeking to prop up the junta's political vehicle and gain lucrative portfolios for their support."

    Thailand sirawith
    Sirawith 'Janew' Seritiwat, one of the most recognisable faces in Thailand's youth-led democracy movements, was attacked in June [Caleb Quinley/Al Jazeera]

    'An enemy'

    Anurak 'Ford' Jeantawanicha, 51,  who has campaigned for democracy for nine years was assaulted on the morning of May 25. Anurak said he was attacked after a Facebook post about a planned protest.

    "The next day, I was supposed to lead the protest," said Anurak, speaking to Al Jazeera from his home in Samut Prakan, south of Bangkok.

    "We were pushing back against the junta for cheating in the election. So that morning I went out, I was driving my bike right around the corner from here. Then at a junction, the first bike hit me," he said.

    "Next thing there were six men with black metal pipes hitting me all over. It was impossible to defend myself.

    "They must view me as an enemy." 

    It was the second time Anurak had been attacked. In late March, men in motorcycle helmets stormed his house and beat him with wooden sticks, he said.

    "We had elections, but the military government is still the same, so there's no difference at all," he said. "There's only one way to get rid of the junta. People need to rise up."

    Under the military, those who criticised the regime, including artists, rappers, journalists and opposition politicians, risked arrest and imprisonment. Others were summoned for sessions on "attitude adjustment".

    Supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, including some members of the so-called "red shirts", fled Thailand in fear of their lives.

    But now they are living in fear.

    In December, two bodies washed up on the banks of the Mekong River. They turned out to be two anti-government activists who had fled the country after the 2010 crackdown on anti-military protests.

    Thailand ekachai
    Ekachai Hongkangwan jas neem attacked seven times, most recently in May when his right hand was broken [Caleb Quinley/Al Jazeera]

    Sluggish investigation

    Bangkok-based Ekachai Hongkangwan, a vocal critic of the government, was among those still in Thailand who came under attack in May.

    Having been attacked seven times, he has now installed security cameras and metal bars at the entrance to his home. Ekachai has also been arrested three separate times for his activism while his car has been torched twice.

    On the morning of the attack, Ekachai was supposed to take the bus to the criminal court to follow up with authorities about an investigation. He said he was followed onto the bus by a suspicious-looking masked man. When he got off, he was immediately set upon by three other men.

    The 44-year-old suffered a broken right hand and ribs, and cuts and bruises, and ended up spending six days in the hospital.

    Al Jazeera contacted the police for comment, but they said that it was too early in their investigations to share details with the press.

    Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand at Human Rights Watch's Asia division, told Al Jazeera that all the attack victims had one thing in common; they had all protested against Prayuth's plan to retain power.

    "There is a rolling crackdown on pro-democracy activists and dissidents in Thailand. The junta now seem to resort to heavy-handed tactics after they see that arrest and prosecution cannot silence dissenting voices," Sunai told Al Jazeera.

    Sunai said that for anti-monarchy activists taking asylum in neighbouring countries give them no protection.

    "In Laos, five Thai exiles were abducted and murdered. In Vietnam, three Thai dissidents were sent back to Thailand and have since gone missing. With that, a spine-chilling message has emerged - nowhere is safe for anti-monarchists."

    I have to keep going. I can't give up.

    Ekachai Hongkangwan, democracy activist

    Despite the attacks and the risk that the military is ready to crack down on any criticism, the activists say they will continue to push for a more open, democratic Thailand.

    "In the last year, many activists have stopped out of fear," Ekachai said. "But I believe that if I stop, others will also stop too. So I have to keep going. I can't give up."

    Sirawith is disappointed that despite winning most seats, the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party failed to form the government, but he is determined to push on.

    For him, it is about a political future based on debate and argument rather than fear and violence.

    "I think we have to show people the truth and make them understand that it's okay to accept and contemplate criticism," he told Al Jazeera.

    "We need to value different points of view and encourage arguments instead of resorting to violence. This should be a battle of words - not violence."

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News