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US Diplomat Troubled by Suppression of Public Debate in Thailand

FILE - Supporters of 14 detained students protest outside the military court in Bangkok, Thailand, July 7, 2015.
FILE - Supporters of 14 detained students protest outside the military court in Bangkok, Thailand, July 7, 2015.

The U.S. ambassador to Thailand says the country faces "considerable challenges" in returning to democratic rule with national elections in 2017. A primary concern is the Thai military government's use of laws that suppress public debate.

Speaking to reporters late Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies said that while bilateral relations between Thailand and the United States remain strong, the government’s restrictions on freedom of expression and its use of military courts in civilian cases is undermining discussion of the issues facing the country.

“We called for civilians not to be tried in military courts. We think that’s important. We believe in the rule of law. We believe in an independent judiciary, we believe obviously in people’s rights to be defended in a court of law and we see difficulties, we see real problems with civilians being tried in military courts,” Davies said.

Home visits, 're-ducation' sessions

After coming to power in May 2014, the military government, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), imposed tough restrictions on public gatherings, closely monitoring academic meetings and seminars.

According to a Thai non-government legal rights organization, the military has summoned or visited the homes of almost 800 individuals, including more than 60 academics, as well as journalists.

Many individuals have been held for questioning and “re-education” sessions, which last several days before they are released. Some critics have fled overseas.

Davies said Washington is also concerned over what he called “unprecedented” lengthy prison sentences for individuals charged with violating the country's strict Les Majeste Law, which imposes heavy penalties for speech seen as critical of the Thai Royal Family.

“Over the past seven months we've seen defamation charges leveled against journalists and others as well as detention without charges of persons expressing opinions or reporting on issues deemed sensitive by authorities," he said.

Davies, a career diplomat, called on the Thai government to adopt “an inclusive process” through public debate on the country’s political future as the way to ensure long-term stability.

Thailand’s constitutional drafting committee is currently writing the country’s second draft under the current military government. The initial draft charter was voted down by the military-appointed National Reform Council in September.

The new drafting committee now has six months to rewrite the constitution before a referendum and new elections expected in 2017.