June, defending her right to stand up for others in Thailand

Self-granted special powers

On the day of the interview, June’s colleagues submitted a petition to amend or revoke at least thirty-five orders issued by the junta since the 2014 coup d’état in Thailand. Hundreds of pieces of law were passed in the past five years by the junta leadership, better known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). The NCPO exercised its sweeping powers granted by the 2014 interim Constitution — and by and large confirmed by the 2017 Constitution — to issue judicial, legislative, and executive orders that can’t be challenged in the court.

Only a new parliament can roll back what June calls a “dictatorial legacy.” Prayuth Chan-ocha, former army chief and leader of the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party, has already been reappointed as Prime Minister following the general election in March 2019. A new Cabinet is also in place, and several military orders and decrees have been lifted. But June remains concerned. “Many Thai people think the junta-era restrictions are over, but military authorities can still detain civilians up to seven days without judicial oversight. Also, offenses under NCPO decrees remain in place. So far, only 70 of the 557 decrees issues by the NCPO are being repealed (for more details read this analysis piece written by Thai Lawyers for Human Rights).”

On 11 April 2019, after 24 March election, a small group of people and activists hold a gathering in Bangkok to demand Thailand’s Election Commission stop filing charges of criminal defamation against those criticizing its performance and transparency during the election. Photo credit: Banrasdr Photo

‘Fast horse lawyers’

Before the 2014 coup happened, June was working in the southern region bordering Malaysia — an area under protracted violence for a long time. When martial law, in the wake of Thailand’s twelfth coup d’état, was implemented, she knew what would come. She met late one night with a few fellow lawyers. The small group decided to form a task force made up of lawyers, social activists, and volunteers, focused on preventing the abuse of power they all expected to occur.  

The ad hoc team started using Facebook to post hotline numbers that people in need of legal aid could use to contact them. The volunteers would take the calls. “We worked as ‘fast horse lawyers’,” explains June. “We had to be on the scene quickly, because once protesters were taken to military camps we couldn’t reach them anymore.”

In July, two months after the coup, the team realised that this was not going to be a temporary situation. This would not be like the coups that had come before. The interim Constitution’s Article 44 would effectively extend military jurisdiction over civilians and absolve the NCPO and officials operating under its orders from responsibility for any human rights violations. “We understood the intention,” says June. “The junta wanted to rule, not solve the problem and leave.”   

That’s when Thai Lawyers for Human Rights was born.

Sleeping on the pavement

The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) team soon came to the conclusion that litigation alone would not be an effective enough tool in a situation where even the judicial system was controlled by the state. They needed reliable information and reporting based on good data. That’s why TLHR has two components: legal aid and documentation. Today, the group consists of eight fulltime lawyers, twenty volunteer lawyers, and eleven people working on documentation. To date, they have helped over three hundred clients.

June joined TLHR full-time in the spring of 2015 and soon thereafter for the first time represented clients in court. It was a high-profile human rights case involving fourteen students from the New Democracy Movement who were arrested after carrying out peaceful protests calling for democracy and an end to military rule. Little did she know then that her life would be completely turned upside down, just for doing her job.

“Many Thai people think the junta-era restrictions are over, but military authorities can still detain civilians up to seven days without judicial oversight. Also, offenses under NCPO decrees remain in place.”

On the first day of the trial, the young lawyer parked her black Honda CR-V in front of Bangkok’s military court. In it were personal belongings of the fourteen students. The clients had asked her and their lawyers to keep their personal items safe before they were sent to a twelve-day pre-trial detention, ordered by a military court. After the trial, around midnight, police tried to search her car without a warrant, but June managed to fend them off. That night she and some of her lawyer fellows slept on the pavement outside the court house to prevent the officers from illegally searching her vehicle. The next day they came with a search warrant and confiscated five of her clients’ mobile phones. To her great surprise, the young lawyer was later charged with two criminal offenses: refusing to comply with an official order and concealing evidence.

“I’m still waiting for a final decision on my case from the Attorney General’s office,” says June, clearly aggravated. “I have to report to the prosecutor every two or three months. I have to come back again and again.”

The Thai government, when pressed on this issue by the international community, claims the two charges have already been dropped, but June knows this is only partly true. “The local prosecutor issued an opinion stating I should not be indicted. Under our system, however, the opinion then has to be sent to the royal Thai police who made an opinion in favour of indictment.”

UPDATE: On 27 August 2019, the Attorney General ordered to drop the case against June in which she was charged with an offence of refusing to comply with an official order and an offence of concealing evidence (Read more here).

Sirikan with Thai Lawyers for Human Rights colleagues and diplomats stand in front of the Chanasongkram Police Station.

Clear case of judicial harassment

To make matters worse, a second charge was filed in 2016 after June attended a session of the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva. When she reported to the police upon returning to Thailand, she was informed she was being charged for being an accomplice in a coup commemoration organised by her clients. International human rights organisations immediately called on the Thai government to drop all proceedings.

A Bangkok Post article that appeared a week later reported: “Officers cited evidence of her carrying a plastic bag and brown envelope while rushing to her car, while a photo of her on the day of the commemoration showed that she was allegedly involved in her clients’ activities.”

June is accused of sedition — making her the first Thai lawyer to be charged with this grave offense — and violating the junta’s ban on political gatherings. If found guilty, she could face up to seven years in prison. She denies all charges, saying she was present at the commemoration event to give legal assistance to her clients. “They basically copy & pasted the accusation against my clients and mixed the first case (involving the car) with this new one,” explains the human rights lawyer. As with the first charge, it’s still unclear what will happen. “They keep telling me the police are still investigating my case. It’s pretty much clear this whole thing is judicial harassment.”

Since the trial in 2015 the fourteen students have been charged in several other cases. Many still have to go to court to stand trial. According to June some of them feel tired because of the wrath they face. Some have left the movement; others joined pro-democracy political parties. “At least none of them are in jail,” says June dryly.   

On 9 February 2016, human rights defender Ms Sirikan Charoensiri received a summons ordering her to report to Chanasongkram Police Station in Bangkok. The human rights defender was accused of making a false police report and refusing to comply with an order of a competent official.

Stop being an annoying brat

Amidst the turmoil and the international spotlight shone on her person, the Thai human rights defender stays grounded and determined. She credits her humble beginnings with instilling those qualities into her character.

June grew up in a small town in the northeastern province of Yasothon, where her mom was a teacher, her dad managed a small law office, and her grandparents were rice farmers. The family of five — June has two sisters — struggled financially but made ends meet.

June always knew she was different. Her sisters would ask for video games, while she wanted to enrol in English tutorial classes. “My mom said I was already good at English and that I should stop being an annoying brat. But the wealthier kids in my class took after-school classes to improve their skills. It felt unfair to me that I couldn’t. I remember thinking, ‘Is this the world we live in?’”

Determined to claim what she felt should be hers, one day June climbed the wall of the tutorial building. The teacher saw her, invited her in, and said to tell her mother to just pay when she could. June was soon one of the top students, representing the school in different English language competitions.   

Civil rights issues

After that, the ambitious youngster set her sights higher. Her parents took out a loan to send their studious daughter to Bangkok to attend Triam Udom Suksa School, one of the country’s most prestigious high schools. More than ever before, June would experience the gap between rich and poor.

Girls in class called her out on having short hair down to her ears, different from the long and perfectly groomed hairdos of her affluent peers. “Are you from a border province?,” they would ask. She wasn’t, but they made her feel self-conscious about her appearance, as well as her origin. June decided to show her worth by trying to outperform everyone in school. 

In 2003, she went to the US for a one-year student exchange. Her parents sold some of their rice paddy fields to finance the trip. Her African-American host family played a big role in getting June interested in civil rights issues. “My host mom was a retired public librarian. She had all of these books about the struggle of African Americans which she encouraged me to read and discuss about. I learned from her that a better life is out there, but you have to fight for it.”

Immerse in ‘real society’

Soon after she returned to Thailand in 2004, the tsunami hit with devastating effect. June immediately signed up to volunteer in a camp in the South. People there asked why she came down. Her reply spoke volumes about the person she was becoming: “Would you rather that I sit at home and watch this crisis unfold on TV?” 

During her last year of high school she had decided to study international relations at the prestigious Chulalongkorn University. Her volunteer experience changed everything. June’s intolerance of suppression and treating people as second-class citizens steered her towards law, and at Thammasat University she found the right place to pursue her convictions.

“They keep telling me the police are still investigating my case. It’s pretty much clear this whole thing is judicial harassment.”

June wasn’t a straight-A student but only because she invested a lot of time doing extracurricular activities, such as teaching kids with disabilities how to read. She wanted to immerse in what she calls the “real society,” and getting hung up on textbooks would get in the way of that.

Still, June was drawn to public and international law. During one class in her third year the professor discussed a case in Thailand about an expat prisoner who filed charges against the prison for putting shackles on him for twenty-four hours. “In that class we didn’t explore the whole legal framework of international human rights. We just read the court decision,” recalls June. She knew she wanted to dig deeper, to see with her own eyes—just like when she was a girl climbing a wall to watch the English tutor teach.

Violence and silence

What followed was an internship with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), which enabled June to travel with foreign law experts to document human rights abuses in the South. After completing a master’s degree in international human rights law at the University of Essex in England — on a World Bank Joint Japan Scholarship — she returned to the ICJ as a legal consultant in 2013, where she co-wrote a report on the unsolved enforced disappearance of Muslim human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit.

It’s still one of the most inspiring stories and cases for June. She learned from senior peers that the disappearance was meant to spread fear among lawyers and law students. It didn’t deter June. “Part of our job is to prevent this from happening to others,” she remarks decisively.  

What makes this so hard, according to June, is that in a country with serial coups, where violence and silence have become part of the norm, and accountability is often non-existent, people have become de-sensitised to acts of injustice. “I’m perplexed when people tell me I should be glad that I’m just being charged instead of ‘disappearing.’ They say it’s a sign that things are improving. But you cannot compare evil things with evil things. We shouldn’t falsely ameliorate something that hasn’t yet improved.”  

Litigation is not enough

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights seeks to re-sensitise the general public and legal practitioners specifically, to the forces encroaching on human rights in Thailand.

In its 2018 report, Human Rights Watch lamented the failure of the government to “develop measures to protect human rights defenders.” It also faults authorities for not “prosecuting members of its security forces responsible for torture and unlawful killings of ethnic Malay Muslims in the southern border provinces.” The EU in its 2018 annual report on human rights stated that in Thailand “criminal charges such as sedition, computer crime and public assembly, as well as defamation lawsuits, continued to be brought against human rights defenders and political activists.”

According to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), since the May 2015 coup d’état, at least 127 people have been arrested for lèse-majesté (insulting the monarchy). Fifty-seven of them have been sentenced to prison terms of up to 35 years. One such case involved Siraphop Kornaroot, a 55-year-old writer and blogger arbitrarily detained for almost five years. Kornaroot is the last EU citizen that was arrested after the coup who decided not to plead guilty but submit himself to conviction by the military. He was released on bail in June 2019 after FIDH and TLHR petitioned his case with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

The outcome is rewarding, but June doesn’t consider it an outright win. “The past four to five years we tried many times to get Siraphop released, to no avail. His release on bail is proof that in some situations litigation is not enough, although I know we need to keep doing that to uphold what we practice.”

13 May 2019: The mother and friends of “Siam Thirawut” spreading awareness about the disappearance of Siam Thirawut, one of the three Thai pro-democracy activists who were in exile and allegedly disappeared in Vietnam after fleeing from political persecution after the coup d’etat in May 2014. Photo credit: Banrasdr Photo

Pain is coming early

Resorting to out-of-the-box ideas to protect rights of people is more must than artifice for the Thai legal community. But June expresses concerns about the “legal courage” of people in the law community to do just that. “I’m tired of legal professionals saying we have to uphold the law without challenging restrictive laws and orders. We are under authoritarian rule and therefore need a strong judicial system more than ever. As lawyers we cannot accept that what constitutes a ‘fair trial’ is under threat. We have to be brave.”

That’s no minor task when you know that in Thailand lawyers are at the bottom of legal society in terms of reverence and prestige. And human rights lawyers are at the lower end of that. In fact, when June told her parents about the career path she had chosen, they were very disappointed. They regretted investing so much money in her education. Her parents would have preferred June going into corporate law or working as a prosecutor.

June’s parents have since come around and now are proud of their pioneering daughter. In an emotional exchange her dad expressed admiration for the passion and the heart June puts into her work. “My dad told me that everything you do with heart causes a wound. He said he was only sad the pain is coming to me so early, but that it will make me even stronger than I already am.” 

Crossing the line

June’s strengths have been tested many times in the past five years. But being a lawyer, she knows her rights and how to defend them. She’s also well connected with influential national and international organisations. At TLHR, she worries mostly about her colleagues who are not legal professionals, who are doing documentation work out in the provinces, and are less familiar with legal channels and mechanisms. 

And there’s good reason to be concerned. Besides June, two TLHR team members are being prosecuted for violating junta rules. The organisation is under surveillance, and employees are sometimes followed. “The authorities know where we work, who we represent, and who we meet,” says June. “But we have nothing to hide, we are in the light.”

“I’m perplexed when people tell me I should be glad that I’m just being charged instead of ‘disappearing.’ […] [Y]ou cannot compare evil things with evil things. We shouldn’t falsely ameliorate something that hasn’t yet improved.” 

Focusing on the wellbeing of staff has become a big priority for the young human rights lawyer. In 2017, when she stayed for three months in the Netherlands as part of the Shelter City programme, June chose to do trainings on physical, mental, and digital security. When she returned to Bangkok she felt better equipped to take care of her staff — and herself.

A turning point that prompted June to be more vigilant came back in 2015 after police impounded her car parked outside the military courthouse. The black Honda CR-V was actually her dad’s. Three days after seizing it, authorities sent local police to her parents’ house. Her mother hadn’t heard the news yet. Officers questioned the mother about her daughter, showed a photo, and asked whether June was really a lawyer. June’s mother invited them in, showing the policemen pictures of her daughter’s graduation. 

Only later June told her mom about the incident involving the car, and it shocked her. “This crossed a line for me,” says June. “They could have talked to me here in Bangkok. I knew from then on I would have to be conscientious and smart about my moves and actions.”

A ride home

Although her work has caught the eye of the world, June clings to normalcy. She’s uneasy about accepting awards that honour her personally because she feels strongly that the praise belongs even more to her colleagues. But over the years she’s become more pragmatic, finding ways to utilise her reputation to draw attention to the human rights situation in Thailand, and to stimulate students to take up human rights law. Every time she’s up for an accolade she discusses with the team: ‘Will accepting this recognition benefit the work of TLHR?’ In most cases, if the answer is ‘yes,’ June will accept.

The overwhelming attention has its downsides as well. June has had to give up litigating in the court room because of the exposure that came with her legal troubles. It’s become hard to assess the intentions of others, and there are some security concerns as well. That’s why June took on a different role, which involves going abroad to speak about the Thai junta.

“It’s not something I really wanted to do, but I figured since I was already in the spotlight I might as well go for it. Since I speak English and can conduct myself internationally, I decided to strengthen our collective force by being a bridge to the outside world.”

Her nickname, ‘June,’ captures the essence of her passion for creating connections, although she only found out later in life. When she asked her dad about the nickname’s origin, he told her it’s Cambodian and has a positive meaning, without elaborating further. She later learned that her name translates to ‘supporting someone,’ or ‘giving someone a ride home.’

It works on different levels. As one friend pointed out, “Driving a car changed your life.”