BANGKOK — Thailand’s junta has forced a German foundation to cancel a prominent forum on media restrictions imposed since the military toppled an elected government last May.
The move is the latest sign of defensiveness by the army, which installed an interim civilian Cabinet but reserves ultimate power for itself. On Wednesday, a foreign ministry spokesman complained that a visiting US State Department envoy had hurt the country’s pride by calling for an end to martial law.
Germany’s Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a foundation promoting social democracy worldwide, said on its Facebook page that it would comply with a request from the junta to postpone Friday’s presentation of a study on media freedom in Thailand. Requests from the junta are tantamount to orders.
The junta, officially called the National Council for Peace and Order, threatens critics with arrest under martial law. It is seeking to strengthen already harsh laws governing communication on the Internet and comments on the country’s monarchy.
Manop Thip-osod, a spokesman for the Thai Journalists Association, said the group was sorry to see Friday’s event postponed and was concerned about freedom of expression in the country. The association was a co-sponsor of the event, which was to have included a panel discussion.
“This is the launch of an academic work on the media that the NCPO should think about and check carefully, because to block such an event does not bode well for the country’s image, which is being monitored by the international community,” Manop said.
Junta spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree said the event organizers should have provided the authorities with information about the event in advance, but because they didn’t they were asked to postpone it because “we are still in a sensitive time.”
The German foundation declined to comment beyond its Facebook statement. However, Manop said that according to the foundation, the military authorities said the event could cause damage and be very sensitive. While the junta has indicated that it considers almost any criticism of its actions to be potentially destabilizing, such language usually refers to cases of criticism of the monarchy.
Criticism of the monarchy is punishable by three to 15 years in prison under Thailand’s longstanding lese majeste law. After last May’s coup, the junta began prosecuting such cases in military courts, with no avenue of appeal. The growing number of such cases, frequently involving Internet postings, has drawn great concern from local and international rights defenders.
In other junta actions Thursday, members of the ousted government who criticized recent actions against former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra—barring her from political office for five years and threatening her with criminal prosecution for a rice subsidy policy—were told to report to military authorities for an “attitude adjustment.” They were not detained.
Members of the interim Cabinet installed by the junta have said elections are not expected until 2016, drawing further concern from rights advocates and governments such as the United States.
In an annual report this week by US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House, Thailand was judged to have fallen into the category of “Not Free” from a designation of “Partly Free” a year earlier. The group said Thailand was especially weak in political rights and civil liberties.
Thai officials regularly shrug off such criticism, saying foreigners do not understand Thailand and strong measures are needed to eliminate corruption from politics in order to strengthen democracy. The junta’s critics believe it is acting mostly to eliminate the powerful political machine of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by a military coup in 2006 after being accused of abuse of power and disrespect for the monarchy. Thaksin remains widely popular in Thailand’s north and northeast.