Rohingya migrants sit on a police van in southern Thailand. Pic: AP.

The Royal Thai Navy has filed defamation charges against international journalists for their reports on authorities being involved in human trafficking of ethnic Rohingya refugees. The move sends a chilling reminder to the media about the dismal state of press freedom in Thailand, the easy exploitation of flawed laws and how little outside inquiry Thailand’s military tolerates.

Ever since the deadly persecution of the Rohingya people, an ethnic minority denied citizenship in Burma, in 2012 that caused tens of thousands to flee, mostly on frail and overcrowded vessels on the Andaman Sea, the plight of Rohingya refugees in Thailand has been well documented in the past 12 months*. Reports of abuse, rape, inhumane detention conditions and human trafficking have persistently accompanied the coverage of the refugees in Thailand. A deadline imposed by the Thai government to find and transfer the refugees to another country passed in July with no results and further developments being made, leaving the Rohingyas in legal limbo.

While this story is almost exclusively covered in foreign media and mostly met with apathy in the mainstream Thai media, Phuket Wan has been regularly reporting and unearthing accounts of the mistreatment of Rohingya people, including selling to human traffickers by Thai authorities. In July, Phuket Wan was quoting from an investigative special report by the Reuters news agency that accuses certain sections of the Royal Thai Navy of actively taking part in the smuggling of Rohingya refugees.

This was followed up by Reuters with another special report in December that also carries “startling admissions” by the DSI chief Tharit Pengdit and the Deputy Commissioner General of the Royal Thai Police Maj-Gen Chatchawal Suksomjit over the existence of illegal camps in southern Thailand. In the aftermath of the coverage, both the United Nations and the United States have called on Thailand to investigate the findings of the Reuters report.

This is how the Royal Thai Navy responded to these accusations:

A captain acting on behalf of the Royal Thai Navy has accused two Phuketwan journalists of damaging the reputation of the service and of breaching the Computer Crimes Act. Two other journalists from the Reuters news agency are expected to face similar charges shortly.

The Phuketwan journalists, Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, denied the charges and were fingerprinted when they presented themselves today at Vichit Police Station, south of Phuket City. They are due to reappear on December 24. The pair face a maximum jail term of five years and/or a fine of up to 100,000, baht

It’s believed to be the first time an arm of the military in Thailand has sued journalists for criminal defamation using the controversial Computer Crimes Act. (…)

In response to presentation of the charges today, Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian issued the following statement:

(…) We are shocked to learn now that the Navy is using a controversial law to sue Phuketwan for criminal defamation. The allegations in the article are not made by Phuketwan. They are made by the highly-respected Reuters news agency, following a thorough investigation. (…)

The Rohingya have no spokesperson, no leader, but through Phuketwan’s ongoing coverage, the torment of these people continues to be revealed. Their forced exodus from Burma is a great tragedy. Yet how they are treated in the seas off Thailand and in Thailand remains a constant puzzle.

We wish the Royal Thai Navy would clear its reputation by explaining precisely what is happening to the Rohingya in the Andaman Sea and in Thailand. By instead using a controversial law against us, the Navy is, we believe, acting out of character.

We can only wonder why a good organisation finds it necessary to take such unusual action instead of making a telephone call or holding a media conference.

Navy Captain Uses Computer Crimes Act to Sue Journalists for Criminal Defamation“, Phuket Wan, December 18, 2013

This is an extremely worrying development. The navy is not only using the libel law against the two journalists, but also the controversial Computer Crimes Act of 2007 (CCA). Thanks to the CCA’s flawed and vague wording, it opens up the possibility for arbitrary charges against all online users to be held liable not only for their own content, but also for the content of third parties that the user is hosting. Recently, the Appeal Court upheld the suspended sentence against Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the webmaster of the news website Prachatai, for not deleting web comments deemed lèse majesté quickly enough.

Another aspect is that it also shows that allegations of human trafficking are hardly being investigated, let alone by somebody outside of the military. After allegations of human trafficking against army officers earlier this Januaryan inquiry found the men at no fault but they were transferred out to another region nonetheless.

Earlier this year, we blogged about the then-defence minister Sukumpol Suwanatat’s “fear of too much press freedom” and this move again reflects the armed forces’ self-image that is still being maintained until today: an essential part of the Thai power apparatus that is not to be questioned or criticized, especially by outsiders.

*NOTE: The plight of the Rohingya refugees will be highlighted as part of a special 2013 year-in-review series starting December 27, 2013 on Siam Voices.

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About the author: 
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and reports for international news media like Channel NewsAsia. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.