Not so long ago, Thailand’s representatives at United Nations meetings sat quietly while counterparts from nearby countries like Burma and Cambodia were grilled on their human rights records.
Around the world, Thailand’s legal, political and social developments in the 1990s were greeted with applause, and its people in Geneva could sit comfortably, confident that their country would be held up as an example of somewhere with an improved record, even as their neighbors were being singled out for the opposite reason.
How times have changed. This week, the Asian Legal Resource Center submitted a statement to the Human Rights Council (above) that has painted the bleakest picture yet of denied rights and declining rule of law in Thailand during the past few years. [การเติบโตขึ้นของรัฐแห่งความมั่นคงภายในและการเสื่อมถอยของสิทธิมนุษยชนในประเทศไทย]
According to the Hong Kong-based group, Thailand is now in real danger of turning back into an internal-security state. The center’s indicators include the repeated overthrow of elected governments by antidemocratic forces, large-scale public criminal activity with impunity, Internet censorship and the lese-majesty witch-hunt, threats to human rights defenders, and forced repatriation and murder on the high seas.
The first item on the center’s list is the removal from office of Samak Sundaravej’s and Somchai Wongsawat’s governments through court orders based on bizarre clauses in the army-sponsored 2007 Constitution. Neither of them, the group underlines, was a friend of human rights, citing Samak’s fantastic denials of historical fact on the Thammasat massacre and Tak Bai killings. But, it adds, that both were pushed out, and the manner in which each was pushed, indicate that “electoral politics in Thailand have been sidelined and that the senior judiciary has been made into a tool for conservative political forces and is not at all independent.”
The second of the center’s indicators concerns the military-style Government House and airport takeovers at the end of 2008. “The group spearheading them,” it continues, “Ran a de facto police force whose members openly and covertly carried and used weapons, including guns, explosives, knives and an array of blunt instruments, and which assaulted and illegally confined numerous persons, and is believed to have been responsible for at least one killing.”
Despite all this, there have so far been no reports of credible criminal inquiries, and the prime minister’s excusing himself from responsibility by saying that it is a job for the police and courts is patently ridiculous. Not only can he have special teams take up these cases, but he is duty-bound to do as much given the scale of the events and their consequences. But with the latest news that he and his staff have attended the funeral ceremony for a member of the group responsible for the takeovers, it looks unlikely that he is going to take this duty seriously.
In its third point, the legal center takes up the increasingly hot topic of people charged for commenting about the royal family, and the closely-related issue of online censorship. It cites a number of widely-reported cases and expresses special concern over the new “Protect the King” website operating on the parliament’s server, which is encouraging citizens to make complaints about others whom they think have committed an offence against the monarchy [English text of PtK website].
Fourth, the group describes the growing harassment of rights defenders in Thailand, along with the systemic failure to solve killings and disappearances of activists in previous years, which “are not sporadic but are a part of the institutional make up of the internal-security state”.
Most recently, after the Internal Security Operations Command said that insurgents in the south of the country were using human rights agencies to spread hatred among local people, soldiers and police raided the office of one well-known group. The command’s subsequent claims that the raid was part of a search for an alleged terrorist hiding in the area are unbelievable: the man they were purportedly hunting could not have hidden himself in the document files and computer drives that they went through for some three hours.
Fifth and finally, the Asian Legal Resource Centre has raised the widely-reported inhuman treatment of hundreds of persons travelling across the Bay of Bengal who passed into or near Thailand’s waters only to be forced back out to sea again, many to their deaths. After weeks of blanket denial, the prime minister’s recent allowance that there may have been some such incidents is not only morally bankrupt but also holds no hope that the full story will ever be revealed. His qualifying of every remark and his insistence in an interview that these people about whom he knows nothing are “not refugees, just illegal immigrants” are the words of a man trying to squirm out of a tight spot rather than trying to do something about a matter of life or death.
All this and more is being put before the current sitting of the Human Rights Council. Ironically, back in 2006 before the coup Thailand tried to get a seat on the council. It failed then not because of poor diplomacy, as it claimed, but because after five years of government under Thaksin Shinawatra its rights reputation was in the gutter. It is not in the gutter any more. Now it’s in the sewer.
To get it out again requires courage to admit the facts, tell the truth and do something about it. Neither Thailand’s mealy-mouthed prime minister nor the phalanx of generals at his rear can be expected to do this, which is why it falls to everyone else concerned about the defense of human rights in Thailand to speak and act instead.
Some other good reads:
Modern monarchy and inviolability (Grant Evans/Bkk Post)
Special interview: Giles Ungpakorn, Pt. I (New Mandala)
FT interviews Abhisit (Bkk Pundit)