Questioning the objective of demonstration is just a rights’ restriction in disguise, argues Somchai Preechasilpakul
One of the major reasons often cited to restrict the basic rights of demonstration is an accusation of a "dishonest," or to be more accurate, a "hidden" agenda behind the gathering. Demonstrators were suspected of being paid for, or the gathering aimed to remove the government. Several strategies have thus been employed to prevent demonstration from happening either through denying access to places, or making one much more difficult. Restricting and barring people from other provinces to travel to Bangkok is one of the tool frequently employed.
Such accusation has been employed as a state's apparatus by most rulers. Its justification never been verified.
Shall the freedom of demonstration under the democratic rule be prevented only because its objective was questioned by those in powers?
Lest it's forgotten, demonstration is a political expression and one of important basic rights of members in any democratic society. Any such society accepts and supports its members' rights to voice individuals or groups' need, demands, and opinions. Examples are abundant: protests against dam building; coal-fuelled power plant; or a gathering to support government's populist policies or politicians. It is important to realise that demonstration power depends equally on numbers of protestors and supporting evidence that justify the gathering.
Therefore, any demonstration has its goal: to stop government's particular project or policy, or to demand administrators' accountability.
These goals inevitably affect other parties in one way or another. Shareholders of a potential bidder for the coal-fuelled power plant might concern for the loss in their fortune, or the politician's career at risk following political expose.
Will these demonstrations too, be viewed as "dishonest"? If so, then there would be no protesting that can be said to be completely pure, except, perhaps the unplanned gathering of 1,250 Buddhist monks on Makha Puja day.
Finding the clear division line between "pure" and "impure" gathering's objective, is thus, difficult and may not be possible. This is a reason why demonstration is allowed and institutionalised in democratic society, based not on its objective "impurity" but rather on its non-violent basis.
Neither can state authorities claim high moral impurity to impose provisions in laws that restrict people's rights. Haven't there been plenty of examples that show high level officials are just as good an opportunist as ordinary villagers. In particular, the hands that rule are more prone to abuse their powers.
Therefore, the only justification for the restriction or prevention of demonstration is when there has been clear evidence to use violence as a tool to achieve demands. The 1997 Constitution set a good example in enshrining the rights to "peaceful and un-armed" demonstration.
This principle must be upheld, and apply to even the gathering of political canvassers showing support for a particular policy, or an individual politician, no matter how this person is viewed disgustingly by other people. This is also an expression of political opinion. No one can keep other people's mouth shut.
It is notable that whenever ordinary people attempt to make their voice heard through their legitimate demonstration rights, they will be accused of selfishness, of caring more about their own interest than the damage caused to the whole society. Similar movements by urban middle-class received no such blame. Why?
The finger-pointing game does injustice to the grassroots who - government after government - have to bear the heavy costs of development while the urban folks reap all the benefits.
Unless there have been attempts to use violence, all parties - be they supporters or opponents of the powers-that-be, have the full rights to stage a peaceful demonstration.
Restriction of any demonstration will be justified only when it is applied to all groups, based on the principle of laws. Otherwise, the accusation of "dishonest" demonstration will be tantamount to just a political ploy to silence opponents of the powers-that-be.
Somchai Preechasilpakul is the dean of Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Law.
Translated by Mukdawan Sakboon