A "climate of fear." Threats against government opponents. A war on drugs and "dark forces." Thousands of unexplained killings. Human rights in Thailand under severe threat. That was hardly the environment the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) envisioned when it decided to hold its 2003 meeting in Bangkok.
While the leaders at next week's APEC meeting will be treated to the traditional splendor of Thai culture, including a grand flotilla of royal barges on the Chao Phraya River, they won't see, as one human-rights worker put it, "stray dogs, homeless people, or human-rights activists."
That's because Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has ordered a Potemkin welcome for APEC, in which the streets are scrubbed, new trees planted, and tens of thousands of homeless people and prostitutes run out of town. A number of undocumented Cambodians, mostly beggars, have even been flown back to Phnom Penh. The Thai government has also banned some 500 human-rights and social activists from entering the country and threatened potential organizers of protests.
Mr. Thaksin seems intent on making sure the clang of different voices that has been the hallmark of a remarkably successful civil society over the past decade -- and which has helped make Thailand so refreshing in a region not noted for tolerance of free expression -- disappears while APEC is in town. Many members of Thai civil society are worried that a temporary hiatus will turn into a permanent slumber.
Most worrying is the return of terms such as "extrajudicial execution" to the Thai political vocabulary. Since February, when Mr. Thaksin responded to the widespread and growing problem of methamphetamine trafficking and use by declaring a "war on drugs," Thai police report that approximately 3,000 alleged drug criminals have been killed. The government says that only about 100 were killed by police, in self-defense, and the rest in internal turf wars among dealers. Tens of thousands have been arrested.
Many of those who have looked into these deaths have alleged the involvement of state security officials. Instead of conducting investigations or urging restraint in the midst of such carnage, Mr. Thaksin, a former police officer, has called for law enforcement to be conducted on the basis of "an eye for an eye."
Early on Mr. Thaksin disclaimed official responsibility for the large number of deaths, saying, "In this war, drug dealers must die. But we don't kill them. It's a matter of bad guys killing bad guys." However, few in Thailand find this explanation credible, particularly after his subsequent statement in August that Thai security forces "would shoot to kill" when they encountered Burmese drug traffickers, "Their drugs have gradually killed our children, so we won't spare them." Interior Minister Wan Muhamad Nor Matha put the lack of concern for due process just as bluntly, saying, "They will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace. Who cares? They are destroying our country."
While the government claims that its war on drugs has been successful and the drug problem in Thailand has largely been wiped out, it has now turned to a new war on a more nebulous group of "dark forces." Targeted groups include mafia kingpins and corrupt officials. Many fear another bloodbath is brewing.
Mr. Thaksin has shown his contempt for human rights by offering political support for Burma's military government and its bogus "roadmap" to political normalization. He has also taken steps to crack down on Burmese refugees and migrants in Thailand. Most were driven into Thailand by the brutal policies of Burma's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Yet Thailand is considering forcibly deporting tens of thousands back into the hands of the SPDC without any assurances for the respect of human rights. This is extremely worrisome, given the atrocious human-rights record of the SPDC and the well-documented persecution of the largely ethnic-minority population that is at greatest risk of repatriation.
A climate of fear and self-censorship now shadows Thai and foreign nongovernmental organizations and activists, particularly those working near the Burmese border. They have been intimidated, harassed and pressured not to engage in activities that might interfere with the Thai government's plans or to criticize neighboring governments, such as the SPDC.
While Mr. Thaksin campaigned for political office as a modernizer, his tactics represent a step back to the dark days of military rule in Thailand. Though APEC is primarily an economic forum, it took on the issue of international terrorism last year. This year, meeting in a country in a human-rights crisis, APEC's leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, must take up human-rights issues when they meet their host. They should demand an end to the use of state-sponsored violence and an independent investigation of all killings related to Thailand's war on drugs and dark forces. To ensure credibility, Asma Jahangir, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, should be invited to investigate.
Donors should step up support for Thai human-rights NGOs and those offering support for Burmese refugees and migrants, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. So long as the SPDC continues to embrace the tactics of violence (including sexual violence), forced displacement, and forced labor, they truly will have nowhere else to go. Mr. Thaksin should be told that forced repatriation to Burma in these circumstances is a violation of international law and will not be tolerated. He should also be pressed to lean on the SPDC with the full weight of Thai economic and political influence in order to obtain the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and to encourage the SPDC to engage in genuine political negotiations with the opposition.
If APEC's leaders offer the excuse that their meetings are about economics and not about human rights, they will effectively give the green light to Mr. Thaksin. They will also show APEC to be irrelevant to the basic needs of its citizens. This would violate one of APEC's own goals, which is "Making APEC Matter More."
Brad Adams is Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division.