BANGKOK – A military court in Thailand on Friday jailed eight activists who posted comments on Facebook critical of the ruling junta and a military-backed draft constitution, the latest opponents of the government penalised for airing dissent.
The military seized power in May 2014, throwing out an old constitution, clamping down on dissent and promising an election by mid-2017.
But a draft constitution drawn up under military supervision has drawn disapproval from both sides of the political divide, and the junta has responded by banning criticism of the charter in the run-up to an August referendum on it.
The activists were detained by the military on Wednesday over Facebook posts criticizing the draft and junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha. They were charged with sedition and computer crimes.
“The court has approved the first phase of their jail term which will be 12 days. They are now being taken to jail,” Winyat Chatmontree, a lawyer for the group, told Reuters.
Under the law, suspects can be detained for up to 12 days, extended seven times, before they are formally tried in court.
Demonstrations have been rare since the generals overthrew the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014, but a small wave of opposition to the junta and the military-backed charter has arisen in recent weeks.
The junta has appeared increasingly jittery ahead of the Aug. 7 referendum on the constitution, which the country’s two biggest political parties have both criticised as undemocratic.
Opponents say the charter would enshrine military power and would not heal political rivalry that has divided the country for more than a decade.
The military denies seeking indefinite power and says the proposed constitution would heal divisions and usher in stable, corruption-free politics.
At the heart of Thailand’s decade of tumultuous politics has been rivalry between populist political forces that have won huge support in the countryside and the Bangkok-based military-dominated establishment.
Fifteen people were arrested on Wednesday and later released, after they attended small, silent protests in the capital, Bangkok, including one at the Victory Monument, a central landmark and transport hub.
Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the protests had rattled the military.
“Their fear tactics worked right after the coup,” said Sunai. “But what they saw at Victory Monument shook their confidence.”
(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Robert Birsel)