The ties that bind Thailand’s Burma policy

on-the-beach

When Abhisit Vejjajiva slipped through the back door and into the prime minister’s seat in Thailand late last year, exiled democracy advocates from Burma welcomed him. Over a week after reports broke of the Thai navy forcing boatloads of people from Burma back into the ocean to die, they should be thinking again.

Abhisit’s maneuvering into the leadership spot – made possible only after military and royalist intrigues and the three-month illegal takeover of the offices that he now occupies – prompted lots of excited talk about nascent change in Thailand’s policies on Burma.

That was never going to happen. At no point in the last two decades has there been a meaningful shift in Bangkok’s approach to dealing with the generals to the west, neither under Abhisit’s Democrat Party or any other. There have been a few changes in style, but none in substance.

This is because the strongest ties binding Thailand’s policies on its neighbor are not from ministerial offices, but from military bases. And as the prime minister owes his job to the people that decide those policies, rather than the electorate, there is no advantage to him if he tries to do things differently.

The strength of these ties could not have been more apparent than in the handling of news that perhaps thousands of people from western Burma travelling to southern Thailand in boats have been repeatedly forced back out to sea since last December.

Hundreds are believed to have died, and those who have made it through have alleged that naval personnel starved and assaulted them. At least one said that sailors murdered some of his companions by tying their arms and legs and throwing them overboard.

Others who received more sympathetic treatment in Indonesian waters confirmed that Thai sailors had boarded their vessels, thrown their food out and destroyed the engines before pushing them away, but that they had managed to survive by making sails from plastic sheets. Those whom Indian vessels lifted from the sea gave similar accounts.

According to some journalists, the revamped Internal Security Operations Command is now handling the hundred or so survivors who are still in Thailand. An Agence France-Presse webpage carried a photograph of the powerful agency’s local commander, Colonel Manas Kongpan, standing on the beach alongside one group.

Manas, a few people may recall, was among three army officers that a court in 2006 found responsible for the deaths of 28 young men at the Krue Se Mosque two years earlier. By law he ought to have had criminal charges pending against him, but instead he is at the forefront of the new government’s response to an international crisis.

One of his other two co-accused in the Krue Se case, Manas’ superior officer General Pallop Pinmanee, has been in and out of the ISOC apparatus for years. The former death-squad commander was close not only with the 2006 coup group, which had favored Abhisit’s unsuccessful bid in the 2007 polls, but also with the ironically named People’s Alliance for Democracy that brought Abhisit to government at the end of last year by shutting down Thailand’s airports.

Meanwhile, navy and army chiefs have been quick to deny all the accounts about the boatloads of people from Burma and have insisted that no inquiries are necessary. The Foreign Ministry has said that it is “verifying the facts.” The prime minister met with human rights defenders and had reportedly promised that events would be investigated, but then quickly back-pedaled, saying that they might have been exaggerated.

When has there ever been a government inquiry into a case of forced repatriation from Thailand? The forcible sending back of people from neighboring countries, in recent decades mostly from Burma, has gone on for a long time with guarantees of impunity for the likes of Manas and the navy personnel involved this time around.

Most incidents have taken place not at sea but on land, often in jungles and remote valleys, far from the beaches where horrified tourists took photographs of the abuse meted out on some of the victims in the last few weeks.

Human rights groups have for years documented cases of villagers – here dozens, there hundreds – being forced back into combat zones, into hunger, disease and danger. Often soldiers have moved these people in trucks from where they have crossed the border to a few miles north or south and then told them to go back. At other times they have simply been told to leave.

One such incident that did attract publicity was the forced repatriation in 1994 of thousands of people from Sangkhlaburi back to a temporary camp on the other side of the border from where they had fled after Burmese army troops had attacked.

Ashley South, a humanitarian aid worker present on the scene, recalled, “Within three days of the attack, Thai authorities were already telling the refugees to return to Burma, which they refused to do.” Eventually, in desperate circumstances and with threats and promises of help if they went away, they were coerced and cajoled into crossing over again.

Defending the de facto policy of forced repatriation, the chief government spokesman said at the time that, “Thailand will provide the necessary humanitarian aid (for asylum-seekers), and we would not send people back across a border if we felt it was not safe for them to go back.”

That was a Democrat Party government. Its chief spokesman? Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Source: The ties that bind Thailand’s Burma policy

See also: Thailand’s army leaders not better than Burma’s

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2 responses to “The ties that bind Thailand’s Burma policy

  1. Burmese Boat People Scandal Exposes Thai PM’s Debt to Army
    Ed Cropley, Reuters/Jakarta Globe

    In his one month as Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva has made much of the need for human rights and the rule of law at the heart of government.

    Yet even as the Oxford-educated Democrat Party leader was first articulating such noble ideals, members of his armed forces were allegedly towing 992 Rohingya boat people from Burma out to sea and abandoning them in rickety, engineless vessels.

    Accounts from survivors who washed up in Indonesia and on India’s Andaman Islands suggest 550 are now dead. The men, all Muslims, reported beatings and ill-treatment, including four men thrown overboard with their hands tied.

    Unsurprisingly — and true to form whenever abuse allegations surface — Thailand’s military has denied any wrongdoing.

    But the incident refuses to die down, and is casting a harsh light on Abhisit’s commitment to human rights and the extent of the debt he owes the army for its role in bringing him to power two years after the 2006 coup against Thaksin Shinawatra.

    Abhisit promised a thorough investigation, but simultaneously issued a blanket denial of abuse on behalf of the military. His deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, even suggested the entire episode was cooked up to besmirch the country’s image.

    “We are not going to see the Abhisit government going after the military because it was instrumental in his assumption of office,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

    “The military has substantial leverage. The Democrats have made a Faustian pact that Abhisit has to live with. That’s why he has been wishy-washy on the Rohingya mistreatment,” he said.

    In the short-term, political fallout for Abhisit is likely to be limited, with much of the domestic media portraying the incident as legitimate defence of the borders against potential “Muslim terrorists” in the insurgency-plagued far south. Similarly, defending foreign Muslims has never gone down well with Thailand’s nationalist and over whelmingly Buddhist voters, and Abhisit’s star is riding high after the turbulence of 2008, with some commentators even comparing him to Barack Obama.

    Yet the episode, and his knee-jerk shielding of the army, has him looking ominously like his nemesis Thaksin, condemned as a serial rights abuser during much of his time in office.

    After 80 Muslim demonstrators suffocated to death in the back of army trucks in the southern village of Tak Bai in 2004, Thaksin refused to reprimand the army, and even suggested the men died due to weakness caused by Ramadan fasting.

    At the time, analysts explained his comments as an attempt to appease generals even then showing signs of the dissent that would lead to the 2006 coup.

    In Abhisit’s case, it looks to many analysts more like repaying a favor.

    Besides the coup, the army consistently undermined Abhisit’s two elected, pro-Thaksin predecessors, disobeying two states of emergency and orders to remove anti-Thaksin protesters from Government House and Bangkok’s two main airports.

    Army chief Anupong Paochinda went on a prime-time news show to tell Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, to step down as prime minister — a move described as an attempted “coup by television.”

    “The extent of military influence with the current government is not clear, but Abhisit certainly owes his commanders big favors,” wrote Thailand expert Andrew Walker of Australian National University in the Sydney Morning Herald.

    There are other links between the Rohingya episode and the recent past that suggest that Thailand’s armed forces will continue to enjoy impunity.

    The colonel at the heart of the Rohingya allegations, Manat Kongpan, was found by a court to be directly responsible for the deaths of around 30 Muslim men holed up in a mosque after clashes with soldiers in the south in 2004. No action was taken against him, and this week he told a parliamentary committee he gave the Rohingyas food and helped them on their way — a version of events at odds with testimonies from survivors.

    “By law he ought to have had criminal charges pending against him,” wrote a member of the Asian Human Rights Commission under the pen-name Awzar Thi.

    “Instead he is at the forefront of the new government’s response to an international crisis.”

    —————————-

    Abhisit’s human rights challenge
    January 24th, 2009, by Andrew Walker

    The following opinion piece, which I authored, appeared in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

    Rights abuse? You wouldn’t read about it

    Harry Nicolaides was herded, shackled, into a Bangkok holding cell on Monday. He was sentenced to three years in prison for the contents of a single paragraph. The Melbourne author’s crime was to write a short passage referring to the private life of Thailand’s crown prince in a self-published novel that sold only 10 copies.He was sentenced under Thailand’s draconian lese-majeste law, which forbids any frank discussion of the royal family. In the wake of the conviction, he threw himself on the mercy of the people he was accused of offending, petitioning the palace for a royal pardon.

    On Wednesday, this newspaper reported that the Thai army had – on two separate occasions – pushed about 1000 Burmese boat people back into international waters. The refugees were escaping from the Burmese regime’s persecution of ethnic minorities. More than 500 are now said to be dead or missing.

    The Thai military stands accused of detaining the refugees and beating and whipping them, before setting them adrift without motors or sufficient food and water. The Government says it has launched an investigation, while the local army commander denied the accusations, arguing his men gave the refugees provisions and “helped them on their way”.

    Thailand’s human rights reputation has taken a battering. These two incidents represent a serious challenge for the new Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who says he is determined to restore his country’s reputation after last year’s political turmoil.

    His Government came to power a month ago, after the dramatic occupation of Bangkok’s international airport by protesters determined to overthrow the previous government. The protesters crippled Thailand’s lucrative tourism industry, and shredded its long-cultivated image as a foreigner-friendly destination.

    Abhisit presents himself as an urbane and modern leader (and Oxford educated to boot), one who can guide Thailand through the international financial crisis, restore the rule of law, and repair the country’s damaged image.

    But the Nicolaides case and the humanitarian tragedy of the Burmese boat people are not isolated incidents that can easily be dealt with by public relations spin. They relate to the role of two of the country’s most powerful institutions – the monarchy and the army – which helped bring Abhisit to power.

    The Government has placed protecting the monarchy’s reputation at the top of its political agenda. Heightened political divisions over the past few years have generated increasing comment domestically and internationally about the political role of the royal family. There is unprecedented discussion about the palace’s support for the campaign waged by the People’s Alliance for Democracy against Thailand’s former government, which was democratically elected in December 2007.

    The Economist suggested – in a now infamous article – that the Thai king had “lost faith in democracy” by endorsing a series of military coups during his reign and remaining silent throughout last year while the ultra-royalist PAD campaigned to overthrow an elected government.

    Forbes magazine encouraged further discussion by reporting that the king was the world’s richest royal, with assets worth $US35 billion ($54 billion), while Thai internet bulletin boards regularly feature barely coded anti-royal comments that are especially critical of the Queen, given her open support for the PAD’s campaign.

    There has been a vigorous royalist backlash to this outbreak of free speech. The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology has tried to block thousands of websites that carry material on the royal family, army units have been ordered to monitor the internet for inappropriate content and ordinary citizens have been encouraged to report anti-royal comments to police.

    The crackdown is serious: a political activist was sentenced to six years in prison for criticising the king at a public rally, while another is in prison awaiting trial and facing the prospect of an even heavier sentence.

    Just this week came another charge of lese-majeste. An academic at a prestigious university was charged because eight paragraphs in his book about the military coup in September 2006 referred to the political influence of the king.

    Nicolaides was in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in a campaign of good old-fashioned political repression. It is clear the Thai Government is willing to sacrifice freedom of speech for protection ofthe royal family’s image.

    But how will it respond to human rights abuses perpetrated by the army? The gravity of the charges over its actions towards the Burmese boat people, plus ongoing international scrutiny, should prompt firm action against the perpetrators. But this is far from inevitable, as there are bigger political issues involved.

    The extent of military influence within the Government is not clear, but Abhisit owes his commanders big favours. His path to the prime ministership goes back to the 2006 coup, which overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist government and sent him into exile.

    The military-controlled government that followed put in place a new constitution. This included provisions that could be used to undermine a pro-Thaksin government if one was to regain power, which is exactly what happened in December 2007, at the first post-coup election.

    The newly elected government had to live with judicial interference and speculation about another coup for much of its short life. Its fate was sealed when the army refused to move on PAD protesters who occupied Government House and, later, the international airport.

    The army chief even took the extraordinary step of calling on Abhisit’s predecessor, Somchai Wongsawat, to resign during the airport crisis. When the ruling party was finally dissolved by the Constitutional Court, the army chief played a key role in persuading government politicians to defect to Abhisit’s camp, giving him the numbers to win the parliamentary vote for prime minister.

    The army is politically powerful, and Abhisit can be expected to come under pressure not to expose it to undesirable domestic and international scrutiny. There is no lese-majeste law that can be called upon to cover up reports of refugee mistreatment. But already Abhisit seems to be laying the groundwork for a minimalist investigation, suggesting that media coverage of the incident may be exaggerated and that witnesses may have misunderstood what they were seeing. On Thursday he even seemed to endorse the army action, announcing a crackdown on illegal immigrants, declaring “we will push them out of the country”.

    The brutal dirty work against the unfortunate refugees is alleged to have been done by the internal security operations command, a military unit dating from Thailand’s fight against communist insurgents during the Cold War. It was given expanded powers after the 2006 coup, and its broad national security brief may grant it protection from close scrutiny.

    But whatever the outcome of the investigation, the incident is the latest in the army’s very patchy human rights record. There is a well-documented history of forced repatriation of refugees by army units. And in the southern Muslim provinces, the army’s heavy-handed response to low-level insurgency has compounded grievances and strengthened the cause of anti-government elements.

    In 2004 there were two notorious cases of military brutality. In April, 28 militants were killed when the army stormed the sacred Krue Se mosque after a poorly managed siege. One of the commanders involved in the mosque killings, Colonel Manat Kongpan, is accused of leading the recent push-back action against the Burmese boat people. In October about 80 protesters suffocated when they were detained and stacked like logs in army trucks for a three-hour journey to a military base.

    No one has been punished for these incidents, which took place under the watch of Thaksin, the champion of the notorious “war on drugs” that claimed over 2000 lives in a nationwide rampage of extrajudicial killings.

    Abhisit is undoubtedly keen to distance his administration from the excesses of the Thaksin era. So far, despite some hitches, he has succeeded in presenting a positive image to the international community. After the political turmoil of the past year, his leadership holds out the attractive prospect of stability, perhaps even reconciliation.

    But unless his Government is willing to expose the monarchy and the military to internationally acceptable standards of scrutiny and accountability, his human rights credibility will be compromised and he will bear a heavy burden of repression.

    Murderous military brutality cannot go unpunished, especially when writing a paragraph about the private life of a prince in an unread book lands you in jail for three years.

    —————————-

    See also:

    Honeymoon to nightmare for Thai PM (BBC)

    Cast adrift (The Economist)

    A military out of control (Asia Sentinel)

  2. (File under: More BULL SHIT from a Bull Shit PM)

    Thai Prime Minister Vows Accountability On Migrants
    Friday February 6th, 2009 / 10h40

    TOKYO (AFP)–Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva pledged Friday to hold accountable any security forces who abused Muslim migrants from Myanmar after hundreds of the migrants were found adrift.

    “If facts emerge that there have been abuses by our officials, they will have to be held accountable,” Abhisit told a news conference on a visit to Japan.

    “Whether it’s refugees, whether it’s illegal migrant workers, my government intends to respect humanitarian principles and human rights,” he added.

    The fledgling government has been under fire after hundreds of migrants from Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, who are mostly Muslim, were rescued in Indian and Indonesian waters in recent weeks, some covered with welts.

    They have said they were detained and beaten before being set adrift with few supplies by Thai security forces. Rights groups fear scores might have perished. A photograph apparently showing the Thai army towing refugees out to sea has been published in the media.

    But the U.K.-born premier, who took office in December after months of political turmoil in Thailand, insisted there was no proof of wrongdoing.

    The migrants are “clearly young men seeking economic opportunities trying to enter Thailand illegally,” he said.

    “The reports of abuse are solely based on accounts given by these people and nothing more,” he said.
    Abhisit called for all nations in the region to work together to address the plight of the Rohingya, thousands of whom flee poverty, abuse and repression in western Myanmar every year.

    “That’s the only way of dealing with the problem and help treat these people in a humane way,” he said.
    “If we just leave this as a kind of blame game, people shift blame back and forth, you’re not helping those people, and you’re not getting anywhere,” he added.

    Indonesia on Friday said it would consider granting refugee status to the migrants, overturning the government’s previous line that they were economic migrants.

    (See comments on Bkk Pundit: If facts emerge…)

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