Breakdown of 2017 Human Rights Watch Thailand report

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is the Thai junta’s least favourite international human rights non-governmental organization, just below Amnesty International (AI). HRW’s 2017 report, covered in this recent Prachatai English news report, which includes some choice quotes from Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, is quite damning.

Human Rights Watch was founded in 1978 and is one of the world’s best known human rights-oriented NGOs. It is, with Amnesty International, one of only two Western-based human rights NGOs operating pretty much everywhere. However, it is based in the US and funded by wealthy donors, including George Soros, instead of by AI’s model of mass membership and subscription. This means it is particularly vulnerable to accusations of bias, e.g., in favour of a pro-US policy stance, though given that HRW is no fan of the Trump administration there may be a chance of a widening disconnect between HRW and US ‘policy’. Regular critics of HRW reports include such bastions of authoritarianism as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as Thailand.

The Thailand Country Report, available here, is broken down into subsections, which are presented and analysed below.

Referendum and New Constitution

HRW is not a fan of the referendum and new constitution for exactly the same reason as Special Circumstances. A referendum requires a level playing field, even if you get the ‘wrong result’, as arguably happened in the case of the UK referendum on EU membership. In order to get the ‘right result’, the junta manipulated the referendum, through the Referendum Act, the Computer Crime Act, Article 116 of the penal code on sedition, and the various NCPO orders censoring media and preventing public gatherings of more than five people. They used these means to arrest “at least 120 politicians, activists, journalists, and supporters of political movements who had criticized the proposed constitution, publicly announced they would vote 'no', urged voters to reject the draft constitution, or sought to monitor voting.” In addition, HRW points out the government refused to allow equal time on state media to both sides.

Censorship and Restrictions on Free Expression

The HRW report notes regular censorship and restrictions on freedom of expression, including suspending journalists at Voice TV and Spring News channels, and forcing Peace TV off the air for 30 days. However, the single most pervasive ban on freedom of expression is the one on public gatherings of more than five people, with peaceful protesters facing up to two years in prison. This has effectively shut down all criticism of the NCPO, including in universities. 38 people have also been charged with sedition, which carries a sentence of up to 7 years.

Regarding  lèse majesté, 68 people have been charged since the coup, with 194 new cases since the death of Rama IX on October 13. Bizarrely, the junta, mainly to boost the credibility of the world’s strictest  lèse majesté law for internal audiences, regularly reports to the Thai public, whose access to foreign language news is limited by some of the worst English language educational attainment in ASEAN, their requests for foreign governments to deport self-exiled  lèse majesté subjects back to Thailand. Or, as HRW puts it: “The government in 2016 also requested that the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, France, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Cambodia, and Laos send back Thai citizens who sought political asylum from persecution under lèse majesté charges.” The junta, however, does not report to the Thai public that these governments typically ignore these requests. This whole process is bizarre to the majority of foreign observers and quite possibly unwittingly brings the lèse majesté law into disrepute, surely not the aim of the junta.

Arbitrary Detention and Military Courts

Some good news! Last September 12, General Prayut revoked three NCPO orders that empowered military courts to try civilians for national security offenses, including sedition and  lèse majesté. However, this does not retroactively apply to 1,800 cases of civilians tried in military courts, with military judges and fewer rights than under a civilian system (such as the very basic one of trying to find a lawyer willing to stand up in a military court under a military dictatorship). The military also retains its police powers, meaning it can arrest, detain, and interrogate pretty much who it wants for as long as it wants: “45 civilians were detained at the remand facility inside the 11th Army Circle military base in Bangkok without effective safeguards against abuse.”

The junta also routinely uses a form of low-level re-education called ‘attitude adjustment’, which involves those summonsed taking part in camps and then signing an agreement stating they "will not make political comments, be involved in political activities, or travel abroad without permission.” HRW points out the penalty for breaking this agreement can be up to two years in prison, though Special Circumstances is also aware of agreements signed which include possible forfeiture of personal savings or property.

Lack of Accountability for Politically Motivated Violence

Symptomatic of the fact that Thailand’s national human rights commission has collapsed, no legal progress has been made for culpability in the 2010 political confrontation, where over 90 died. This is typical of Thailand’s culture of impunity, largely due to the pi-nong (senior-junior) academic class system which pervades the armed forces and police.

Violence and Abuses in Southern Border Provinces

HRW is in this section seen to be quite impartial. It is no fan of the southern insurgents, mainly due to their violating the laws of war “by targeting civilians in bombings, roadside ambushes, drive-by shootings, and assassinations”, including the August 11-12 string of attacks in seven tourist towns.” Also, “On September 6, a bomb detonated outside a school in Narathiwat province as parents dropped off their children, killing a father and his 4-year-old daughter. The blast also wounded at least 10 teachers, parents, and traffic police. Since 2004, alleged insurgents have torched or bombed more than 200 schools, and killed at least 184 teachers.”

However, HRW also points out the military allegedly engages in “illegal killings, torture, and other abuses against ethnic Malay Muslims”, using pay-outs to avoid lawsuits.

Enforced Disappearances

Since 1980, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has recorded 82 cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand, none of which have been resolved, a situation worsened by the lack of any domestic legislation to implement the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, signed in January 2012 but not ratified. Many Thai people know that their fellow citizens do disappear, which contributes to a ‘Culture of Silence’.

Human Rights Defenders

More than 30 human rights defenders, including civil society activists, have been killed since 2001. Those too high profile to kill or disappear have been harassed by defamation lawsuits, notably British labour rights activist Andy Hall, sentenced to four years in prison on September 20, suspended, perversely, because his work was of benefit to society. In 2016 prominent Thai human rights activists Somchai Homlaor, Pornpen Khongkachonkie, and Anchana Heemmina were sued for defamation of the military due to their reporting of alleged torture.

Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrant Workers

The situation is not good. Thailand does not recognize refugees, instead seeing them as illegal migrants, and it has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. This is despite the fact that Thailand is a massive waypoint for refugees from several mainland Asian countries. Thailand illegally deported and failed to track 100 Uighurs, is still working on what to do with 120,000 refugees in the western border camps, takes no account of the Rohingya crisis despite a request from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and has made limited progress with migrant workers in the fishing industry. HRW notes, however, that the US has upgraded Thailand from a Tier 3 ranking to Tier 2 (Watch List), despite no progress in prosecuting senior Thai military officer Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpa, the alleged head of a human trafficking ring including “52 local politicians, community leaders, businessmen, and alleged criminals.”

Anti-Narcotics Policy

The good news – Thailand may be downgrading methamphetamine from a Category 1 controlled substance to a Category 2, going some way to relieving pressures on the prison system and improving rehabilitation options. The use of this drug involves a complex social phenomenon which includes instances of poor, overworked labourers taking methamphetamine just to earn a decent wage. The bad news – no progress has been made on arresting anyone for the 2,800 killings from Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s 2003 ‘War on Drugs’, which has seemingly now inspired the mass assassinations in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte.

Environment

In January 2016, the Pollution Control Department received a budget allocation to clean up the lead-contaminated Klity Creek in Kanchanaburi province after years of complaints and lawsuits. However, this has not yet been disbursed. If this had occurred in the Central Thai-dominated Bangkok, the outcry would have caused heads to roll. However, ethnic communities are broadly ranked in Thailand in the following order: Central Thais, Southern Thais, Assimilated Sino Thais, Khon Muang (Northern Thais), Thai Lao (Isan), other Tai-Kadai language family minorities (e.g., the Phu Thai), Northern Khmer, Thai Malay, and (mainly Sino-Tibetan) Mountain Peoples. Yes, you guessed it – Klity Creek is an a Mountain People area, namely that of a Karen community.

Conclusion

Many Thais may not be looking forward to a resumption of Thailand's old-style mixture of machine and feudal politics come 2018. In fact, many foreign observers, including Special Circumstances, are not looking forward to this either if nothing changes on the human rights front. Yet some form of rule of law, rather than diktat, will come with the elections. The HRW report makes clear General Prayut's Friday evening monologues of minutiae and homilies have not just closed down the Thai public sphere; they symbolize the death of any form of accountability of the traditionally most successful wing of the Thai body politic, the armed forces. What we are witnessing is the triumph of the rule of the sword.

Moreover, under the junta, human rights in Thailand have collapsed. This is reflected in the fading status of Thailand’s national human rights commission. As the HRW report notes, “In January 2015, based on recommendations from the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission was downgraded due to the lack of independence in selecting commissioners and its own poor performance.”

The junta’s stance of ignoring or condemning the HRW reports means it loses the ability to engage on any basis with an influential human rights NGO, for example by building on HRW’s condemnation of the Deep South insurgents’ tactics. In addition, one of the first steps of any future democratic government, especially one including social democratic values of cosmopolitanism and international solidarity, must be to re-build a human rights framework for Thailand, as detailed in this The Nation article.

This necessarily means having an honest conversation with the world’s two most influential human rights NGOs, HRW and AI, in a civilized manner. It may also mean inviting them as observers, or even members, onto a reinvigorated national human rights commission. While this is inconceivable under the Prayut Administration, we have to hope Thailand’s next generation of politicians can see the obvious benefits of cooperation on human rights issues rather than confrontation. This will go far in enhancing Thailand’s image and to increase the benefits that come with the rule of law – especially an end to arbitrary rule and increased social and economic confidence.

Postscript

Would ‘Colonel Somchai’, my Internal Security Operations Command minder, please check my DTAC connection? I keep having that problem where I telephone people and either I can’t hear them or they can’t hear me, or they telephone me, etc. etc. Thank you very much ;-)