BANGKOK - A Thai military court has released 14 students who were arrested after staging a series of peaceful protests against the military junta. But the students still face sedition charges and there are increasing calls for the government to drop all charges against them.
Calls for release
The student activists all in their 20s had been held in custody since late June after staging a series of anti-government protests against the military’s takeover of power in May last year.
Calls for the release of the students had been increasing including from the European Union and the United Nations Human Rights Office, as well as local human rights organizations.
The military court proceedings Tuesday were tightly secured by soldiers cordoning off access to the court leaving supporters and journalists outside, some singing songs and waving photographs of the activists.
The military court rejected police calls for a further 12-day extension to detain the students and ordered their release.
Charges of sedition remain
But lawyers representing the group said charges of sedition, which carries a seven year jail term, were not dropped along with other charges the group faces over breaching military orders against public gatherings.
Puangthong Pawakapan, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University said the growing calls of support for the students had forced the hand of the junta to release the group.
“At the beginning the junta was reluctant to release the students temporarily. But I think they are concerned that the longer they detain the students the more people will come out to voice their opposition to the junta,” Puangthong stated.
Puangthong said supporters of the students had included those who had backed the military’s intervention in May last year that brought down the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
But since the May 2014 coup d’état the military has increasingly created a climate of intimidation that undermines political movements.
In its recent annual human rights report, the U.S. said the military had drastically curbed freedoms of speech and the press together with the temporary detention of more than 900 people without charge.
Supporters face harassment
Supporters of the detained students, many of whom are in the north east of Thailand, have also faced police harassment or charges by local authorities.
Puangthong said the support for the students comes against growing social frustrations over the weakening state of the economy and the uncertain political outlook.
“Yes it grows everyday — frustration, especially now the economy is very bad and it’s quite clear that the junta doesn’t have the capability to handle economy at all. So what we’re seeing is now economic frustration and political frustration with it,” said Puangthong. “So I think the junta has lost its honeymoon period, even those who support the junta at the beginning have started to turn their back to the junta.”
Analysts said there are calls for the military government to complete the drafting of a new constitution followed by a national referendum on the charter before going to national elections.
The government said it has set down a road map to democracy with new elections expected in late 2016 or early 2017.