Government Fails to Pursue Justice, Free Speech, and Political Reforms
February 1, 2013
The Yingluck government’s response to the 2010 political turmoil has been to repeat its predecessor’s mistake by seeking a one-sided ‘victor’s justice. For Thailand to gain credibility on rights, leaders need to show a resolve to treat serious problems impartially and with respect for the rule of law.
Brad Adams, Asia director

(Bangkok) – The Thai government fell short in 2012 in addressing the country’s many serious human rights problems, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013.

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

In Thailand, the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has politicized efforts to hold accountable those responsible for political violence in 2010. It cracked down on the free expression rights of people deemed critical of the monarchy. And it took no action against security forces who reacted to insurgent atrocities with abuses in the southern border provinces. The government pushed ethnic Rohingya “boat people” back to sea, and failed to provide protections for the many unauthorized Burmese in the country.

“The Yingluck government’s response to the 2010 political turmoil has been to repeat its predecessor’s mistake by seeking a one-sided ‘victor’s justice,’” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “For Thailand to gain credibility on rights, leaders need to show a resolve to treat serious problems impartially and with respect for the rule of law.”

Thailand suffered devastating political violence during the 2010 street confrontations between the government of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the “Red Shirts.” At least 90 people died and more than 2,000 were injured in the violence.

Neither the Abhisit nor the current Yingluck governments have sought to address the violence in an impartial manner. The Abhisit government charged hundreds of UDD leaders and supporters with serious criminal offenses, but failed to file charges against any military personnel implicated in the violence. The Yingluck government, which has the UDD’s backing, has taken a similarly one-sided approach, focusing criminal investigations to prosecute Abhisit and a former deputy prime minister for authorizing soldiers to use live ammunition and lethal force while downplaying deadly violence by UDD-linked “Black Shirts.”

Early drafts of a National Reconciliation Bill submitted to parliament in May 2012 by Yingluck’s ruling Pheu Thai Party and its coalition partners would effectively prevent prosecutions of either side for the political violence. 

While the number of prosecutions for lese majeste has declined since Yingluck took office, Thai authorities continue to use draconian statutes in the Penal Code and the Computer Crimes Act to restrict freedom of expression, including on the internet. Thousands of websites have been blocked as “offensive to the monarchy.” People charged with lese majeste offenses were often denied bail and remained jailed for many months awaiting trial. Sentences have often been harsh. Amphon Tangnoppakul, who was sentenced in November 2011 to 20 years in prison for sending four lese majeste SMS messages in 2010, died of cancer in prison on May 8, 2012.

“The lese majeste and Computer Crime Act bring a climate of fear over all political speech in Thailand, whether in print or on social media,” said Adams. “The government needs to take action to prevent Thailand’s space for free speech from diminishing further.”

In Thailand’s southern border provinces, separatist ethnic Malay Muslim insurgents in the network of National Revolution Front-Coordinate continued to target civilians in bomb attacks, roadside ambushes, drive-by shootings, and assassinations. Civilians make up more than 90 percent of the more than 5,000 deaths in the south since 2004. Insurgents burned down government-run schools and assassinated teachers whom they accused of representing the ideology of the Thai Buddhist state. State security forces have committed killings, enforced disappearances, and torture against alleged insurgent supporters, yet no officials or security force personnel have been prosecuted for abuses.

In 2012, Thailand continued to deny the United Nations refugee agency access to newly arriving ethnic Rohingya from Burma to assess possible refugee claims. Thai authorities renewed a policy of intercepting and pushing back boats carrying ethnic Rohingya Muslims. When boats made landfall or were judged unseaworthy, Thai immigration officials stepped in to enforce deportation by land. This “soft deportation” process has resulted in Rohingya who have fled violence being sent back across the Thai-Burma border where they try again to leave by boat.

Yingluck stated publicly that positive developments in Burma would not result in the 140,000 refugees living in camps on the Thai-Burmese border being forced to return home. In the meantime, those Burmese living precariously in urban areas face exploitation and abuse by Thai authorities and employers.

“Thai authorities treat the Rohingya as a pariah group to be pushed back to sea or returned to persecution in Burma,” said Adams. “Thailand needs to revamp its laws on refugees to ensure it meets it international obligations.”

Thai labor laws afforded migrant workers little protection. When the migrant worker registry and “nationality verification” scheme came to an end in December, hundreds of thousands of unregistered workers from Burma, Laos, and Cambodia were left in limbo and threatened with immediate arrest and deportation. Thai employers continued to seize migrant workers’ documents, and Thai government policy imposed severe restrictions on migrant workers’ ability to change employers.

“After almost two years in office, Prime Minister Yingluck has failed to adopt any significant measures to end abuses, stop censorship, protect workers, and curtail impunity,” said Adams.  “If Thailand wants to stand out as a leading democracy in the region and an influential member state at the UN, it needs to urgently take up justice, free speech, and political reforms.”

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