A 14-year-old charged with insulting the king. A 13-year-old physically dragged out of a restaurant by police officers. A 17-year-old shot with rubber bullets and beaten.
These are among the stories revealed in a new report from Amnesty International, which documents alleged human rights violations in connection to children participating in Thailand’s long-running protests and was released on Wednesday.
Sainam, who had previously been shot with rubber-coated bullets, was a regular fixture at the pro-democracy protests, but the then 17-year-old had planned to skip the demonstration on the day of his arrest in 2021.
Then he saw his friend had been injured.
“I saw my friend get shot in the news, so I went there to see my friend and when I got there it was chaotic, and the police ran and tried to catch anybody who was there,” Sainam told Al Jazeera.
“So, I ran and they shot me in the leg but I kept running so they shot me in the back and they threw me on the floor and beat me with the baton and riot shield.”
In nearly 300 cases, defendants who were children at the time of their alleged infractions are facing criminal charges, many of which are related to the 2020-2021 protest movement. Amnesty says the proceedings violate their freedom of expression, are tearing families apart and putting futures in jeopardy.
“Most of them are facing potential jail time,” said Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong, regional researcher at Amnesty. He says the majority of the documented cases, about 200, have been opened under the Emergency Decree invoked between March 2020 and October 2022 to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“Over the last two years there has been widespread weaponisation of COVID restrictions to curb people’s ability to protest,” Chanatip said.
Sainam first started getting involved in political activism while in high school, attending events at university campuses and participating in flash mobs, before joining larger demonstrations against the government in the streets.
“In Thailand, our government comes from the coup eight years ago. They say they came by election but really they didn’t,” he said, referencing the 2014 military power grab and the 2019 election, which was heavily skewed in favour of the military-backed party.
The protests, which demanded greater democratisation, also broke a nationwide taboo by openly calling for reforms to the monarchy, including abolishing Article 112, which makes defaming, insulting or threatening members of the royal family a crime. In November 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled that even calls for reform qualified as an attempt to overthrow the monarchy.
Amnesty says of the children facing criminal charges, 17 were charged with lese majeste under Article 112, which carries a prison sentence of between three and 15 years.
Sainam was one of the first students to be charged with lese majeste, for participating in a mock fashion show in 2020, when he was just 16. Sainam wore a black crop top, reminiscent of an outfit previously worn by the king.
“At first I was confused because at that time no student had been charged with this before,” he said. “I didn’t know what I can do or what will happen to me.”
Even if not convicted, Chanatip says the lengthy trial process is already robbing children of their futures.
“These children are likely going to face months, or worse years, of criminal proceedings that will hold off their opportunities like going to school, going to university, getting jobs because they will be focused on these proceedings,” he said, adding “they are facing this perpetual threat of having a criminal record which could lead to discrimination in the future.”
Sainam, who said he faces some 20 charges, must go to court about 10 times per month, interrupting his studies.
“It takes the whole day, so I can’t do anything else that day,” he said, adding he must be accompanied by a parent, so his father frequently misses work. Sainam has also had his passport cancelled, with authorities claiming he is a national security risk.
Wannaphat Jenroumjit, a lawyer covering northern Thailand for the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, says his organisation has documented numerous cases of children suffering “physical abuse” during their arrests.
“For example, youths being kicked to the body while being arrested, being crowded until the person falls down and then using a baton repeatedly hit or stomped on, kicking a running motorcycle to topple, using rubber bullets,” he said, adding this treatment “is definitely against Thai law and international principles.”
Wannaphat said that while Thailand has “adopted international principles” on protecting children, there are broad exceptions to the laws which allow “officials to exercise a lot of discretion”.
“Amnesty doesn’t comment on whether what the children or the protesters do violates the law,” said Chanatip. “Our stance is that these laws themselves are not up to international standards. They exist to target people’s right to free speech and peaceful assembly.”
Discrimination against minorities
There has also been an apparent pattern of discrimination against LGBTQ children and ethnic minority children, according to the rights group.
“The juvenile and family court’s counselling centre routinely asked children whether they had sexual intercourse with a person of the same sex,” said the Amnesty report. One LGBTQ defendant told Amnesty he felt, “This kind of question suggests there is something wrong with being an LGBTI person.”
A 17-year-old Malay Muslim girl reported being intimidated by authorities after attending a peaceful gathering to wear traditional clothes and discuss local history. Another 17-year-old girl was arrested for participating in a land rights protest and charged under the Emergency Decree but was denied a translator in court despite speaking Karen as her first language.
In a response to the report, Thailand’s Ministry of Justice told Amnesty “freedom of opinion, expression and assembly … are fundamental rights for the democratic society” and are guaranteed by the 2017 Constitution, promulgated under military rule.
The statement said the trials against child protesters are not meant to “restrict rights and liberties or … target the dissidents”.
Amnesty itself has also been the target of legal threats in Thailand, mainly for its work advocating for those charged with lese majeste. In late 2021, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who first seized power in the 2014 coup, pledged to investigate Amnesty and consider expelling the organisation from the country, after receiving a complaint from hardline royalists.
Chanatip said Amnesty experienced “no direct intimidation” while working on its latest report.
“But Amnesty still faces a campaign against us domestically in Thailand, which is all the more reason why we have to be here. It shows there is growing intolerance of human rights discourse in the country,” he said.
Sainam said he was given the option to attend a “diversion programme” rather than face criminal charges but refused.
“I don’t want to go there because I’m not guilty. If you want to go to that programme you have to say that you are guilty,” he said, adding that he’s grown accustomed to the legal proceedings against him. “It’s become my normal life to go to court.”