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While the government began to look into serious abuses of the past, it made little progress in addressing police abuse, human trafficking, and protection of refugees, particularly those from Burma. Thailand took major steps, however, toward instituting a more accountable and transparent political system and became the first country in Southeast Asia to sign the Rome treaty establishing the International Criminal Court.

Human Rights Developments

The Thai parliament took steps to increase the accountability of government officials and protect rights codified in the 1997 constitution by establishing three new institutions: a National Counter-Corruption Commission, a Parliamentary Ombudsman, and a Supreme Administrative Court. The government also moved forward in establishing a National Human Rights Commission, with Senate selection in October of nine of eleven slated commissioners. The remaining two members were to be chosen at the next Senate session in early 2001. On October 3, Thailand signed the Rome treaty.

In June, after pressure from democracy advocates, the media, and victims' families, the government released a 605-page Defense Ministry report on the army's May 1992 shooting of pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok. A summary had been made public in June 1999. The government censored about 10 percent of the report, however, and the May 92 Relatives Committee, an organization of families of thirty-eight people whose fate has still not been clarified, demanded that the remaining material be revealed. The committee also called for the release of two other official reports on the incident.

Abuses against refugees remained a serious problem. Two incidents had a major impact on Thai refugee policy. On October 1, 1999, five Burmese gunmen calling themselves the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors (VBSW) seized the Burmese embassy in Bangkok and held it for a day. Thailand's deputy foreign minister negotiated the release of hostages and accompanied the gunmen to the Burmese border aboard a military helicopter. On January 24, the VBSW and armed Burmese from the ethnic minority Karen insurgent group called God's Army seized the Ratchaburi provincial hospital, holding over 500 people hostage. The men demanded that civilians from a God's Army base be allowed to cross the border into Thailand and that the Thai army immediately cease shelling the area. Early in the morning of January 25, Thai commandos stormed the hospital and freed the hostages. Witnesses reported to the press that some of the attackers surrendered and were led away to a separate section of the hospital compound. Shortly thereafter, the corpses of ten men were displayed on the sidewalk. Human Rights Watch joined numerous Thai and international human rights organizations in calling for an impartial, public investigation into the incident. The Thai government claimed to have initiated an internal investigation, but as of October, no findings had been released.

Following these two incidents, the Thai government instituted measures that increasingly placed Burmese refugees at risk. In November 1999, the government announced that by the end of 2000 it planned to close the Maneeloy Student Center, a refugee camp primarily housing Burmese dissident refugees, and pressed other countries to accept its residents for resettlement. Thai authorities said all Burmese refugees in Bangkok and other urban areas should move to the border; those who stayed would be considered illegal immigrants and be deported. On February 28, five Burmese, four of whom had applied for refugee status to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), were deported to the Burmese town of Myawaddy, where they were detained by Burmese authorities. Several reportedly received seven-year sentences, and Burma's state-run Radio Myanmar reported on May 19 that one of the men, Saw Tin Oo, had been sentenced to death for treason. He had been arrested by Thai authorities in front of the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok on the day of the embassy siege.

The transfer of urban refugees to the border was slow. The first refugees scheduled to be transferred in August were reluctant to move, and the community surrounding the refugee camp in Umphiem Mai, near the border town of Mae Sot, did not wish them to be moved there.

Throughout much of the first half of the year, senior Thai officials stated that the government wished to see the more than 100,000 refugees living in camps along the Thai border return to Burma within three years. In February, a district officer from Mae Hong Son province passed around a list for refugees in Mae Khong Kha camp to sign up for voluntary repatriation. No one volunteered.

Burmese newly arriving at Thailand's refugee camps had difficulty making asylum claims. At the end of 1999, the Thai government instituted a group status determination procedure, which initially recognized as refugees only those persons fleeing from immediate fighting. Throughout the first half of 2000, the new provincial admission boards rejected thousands of applicants, declaring them illegal immigrants. On June 12, Thai authorities expelled 116 refugees from Don Yang refugee camp in Kanchanaburi province. Of the 116, less than half came from the original group rejected by the provincial board. The others had been rounded up by Thai officials and had not yet appeared before a board. On August 17, approximately 100 persons were returned from Nu Pho refugee camp in Tak province. In August, the Mae Hong Son provincial board reversed an earlier decision to reject thousands of asylum seekers and agreed to admit some 3,400 refugees to camps in Mae Hong Son province.

Ethnic minority Shan refugees continued to flee to Thailand from Burma, but the majority of Shan asylum seekers did not have access to international protection and the refugee camps.

Other human rights problems persisted, including killings of suspected criminals in police custody. In October 1999, a Thai provincial court ruled that three police officers in Suphanburi province had killed three suspected drug dealers in their custody on November 27, 1996, but did not address the circumstances surrounding the killings. The attorney general was to determine whether to proceed with murder charges, but had not done so as of October 2000.

Several attacks on the press took place during the year. Amnat Khunyosingh, owner and editor of the northern Thai newspaper, Phak Nua Daily, was shot and wounded by three gunmen as he was returning home from work on April 18. Police arrested three army officers and said that the attack was probably related to the paper's coverage of Senate elections in Chiang Mai province. Early on August 24, a bomb exploded just outside the home of Suriwong Uapatiphan, news editor of Khao Sod, a leading Thai language daily, but there were no casualties. Suriwong had reported on police corruption and just before the attack had been sued by a police general for defamation. Khao Sod's offices had been bombed in 1999, but the perpetrator was not identified.

The Thai government instituted several measures to reduce statelessness. On May 3, the Local Administration Department decided to shift decision-making on the citizenship of hilltribe children born in Thailand from the provincial governor's office to that of the district chiefs. Decentralization of the procedures was intended to make access to citizenship easier. On August 29, the Thai cabinet granted citizenship to the descendants of three groups of displaced persons: Burmese who entered the country prior to March 1976, Nepalese migrants, and Chinese migrants who had migrated to Thailand since the 1960s. Members of other groups, however, remained without a nationality or full citizenship rights, including a number of Thailand's ethnic minority hilltribes. Around 300,000 such people registered with the government were permitted to reside and work in the country but faced restrictions on their movement, could not participate in elections, and could not own land. Hundreds of thousands of other hilltribe villagers remained unregistered and were officially considered as illegal immigrants.

Thailand continued to be a hub of human trafficking within the region. Enforcement of Thai laws on trafficking remained weak. In one exception, police and an activist from the Centre for Protection of Children on April 18 rescued two Lao girls, aged thirteen and sixteen, from a house where the girls were reportedly being prepared to work in the commercial sex industry. Police arrested the owners of the house. On March 20-21, the Thai government hosted a seminar for justice ministers from twenty Asian countries on combating transnational crime, including human trafficking.

The government's treatment of migrant workers from neighboring countries was unsatisfactory. During a November 1999 crackdown on undocumented foreign labor, overcrowding in a number of immigration detention centers reached dangerous levels. Many migrants still did not have an effective opportunity to challenge charges of illegal entry.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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