Strong US-Thai Relations Should Advance Justice, Free Speech
(Bangkok) – US President Barack Obama should publicly raise concerns about Thailand’s human rights record during meetings with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Bangkok on November 18, 2012. Obama will visit Thailand ahead of Burma and Cambodia for the US-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit.
The Thai government needs to address an extensive list of human rights problems, Human Rights Watch said, including lack of accountability for security force abuses, restrictions on free expression, and the failure to protect the rights of Thailand’s large population of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrant workers.
“President Obama doesn’t need to tread lightly in discussing Thailand’s rights record,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “An important benefit of having a close diplomatic relationship is that Obama can be frank and forthright in raising concerns.”
Obama should take up concerns about abuses by the military and police in Thailand’s southern border provinces, where the government is fighting a separatist insurgency that has been responsible for numerous bombings and killings. Thai security personnel have been implicated in extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances. While abuses have declined since Yingluck took office in August 2011, no security forces personnel have been prosecuted for past or recent human rights abuses.
“Ensuring accountability is not only a matter of justice for victims of abuses, but evidence that the Thai government is committed to becoming a rights-respecting democracy,” Adams said.
The right to freedom of expression, including on the internet, has become an increasing concern in recent years, Human Rights Watch said. Thai authorities continue to bring prosecutions against individuals deemed to be critical of the Thai monarchy under the country’s lese majeste laws, as well as against activists, journalists, and academics critical of the government. Prosecutions for criminal defamation are often initiated by private individuals, including government officials.
Since December 2011, more than 5,000 webpages with alleged lese majeste content have been blocked by Thai authorities, Human Rights Watch said. Lese majeste prosecutions also target intermediaries, such as web masters and magazine editors, which has led to widespread self-censorship. Often people charged with lese majeste offenses have been denied bail and remain jailed for many months awaiting trial. In many cases, those convicted receive very harsh sentences. Amphon Tangnoppakul, known as “Uncle SMS,” who was sentenced in November 2011 to 20 years in prison for sending four lese majeste text messages in 2010, died in prison at age 62 on May 8, 2012.
“Thailand's lese majeste laws are being used to create a climate of fear and self-censorship, undermining Thailand’s development as an open society,” Adams said. “President Obama should press Prime Minister Yingluck to reverse course and reform these laws in line with international human rights standards.”
Attempts by Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party and its coalition partners to pass an amnesty law for those responsible for violence during the 2010 political upheaval is an affront to justice, Human Rights Watch said. At least 90 people died and more than 2,000 were injured during political confrontations that occurred in Bangkok and other cities from March to May 2010. Human Rights Watch concluded in its 2011 report “Descent into Chaos” that both anti-government “Red Shirts,” particularly their armed “Black Shirts” wing, and state security forces were responsible for the violence, though the latter was responsible for the majority of casualties. The Thai government should prosecute all those responsible, regardless of political affiliation or position, Human Rights Watch said.
“Thailand has faced extensive political instability in the last decade, and may face more if it fails to come to terms with the need for investigating and prosecuting past abuses,” Adams said. “Those found responsible for bloodshed should be held accountable for their actions, not allowed to cut deals in the interest of escaping accountability.”
Obama should also discuss the rights of migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said. Thailand’s decision to join the US-supported negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, which will be announced during the visit, will put pressure on Thailand to improve its labor rights record. Thailand’s labor record is marred by pervasive abuses against more than two million migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos, many of whom produce goods for export to the US market.
In September, the US Labor Department listed Thailand’s fishing, shrimp, and garment sectors as continuing to use child and forced labor, and noted the use of child labor in sugarcane production. For the past three years, the US State Department has given Thailand a poor grade on human trafficking.
Obama should also press Thailand to protect refugees and asylum seekers, including Burmese fleeing persecution or war, and not engage in deportations without adequate safeguards and processing.
“Thailand has long been a temporary home to many Southeast Asian refugees, but the prohibition against returning refugees to countries where they face persecution remains fundamental,” Adams said.