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(New York) - The newly appointed interim prime minister of Thailand must immediately restore fundamental rights as the first step toward a return to democracy, Human Rights Watch said today.

General Surayud Chulanont was sworn in yesterday as the country’s 24th prime minister after a group of military and police officers staged a coup against the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra on September 19. The coup plotters, now called the Council for National Security (CNS), established an interim government that is scheduled to step in about a week from now. However, until then, the military authority remains in full power and will continue to hold final authority until a new constitution is drafted and national elections are held late next year.

“To keep its promises for a quick restoration of democracy, the junta must first remove the nationwide enforcement of martial law and lift all restrictions on fundamental rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Genuine reform is impossible when authorities still have sweeping power to ban political gatherings, censor the media and detain people for up to seven days without charge.”

Martial law was announced on September 19 immediately after the coup. After dissolving the Parliament, Senate and the Constitutional Court, the coup leaders announced that political gatherings of more than five people would be banned, with violators subject to six months imprisonment. Existing political parties and local administrative organizations were ordered not to hold any political activities or assemblies.

Media censorship remains in place, with the junta directing the media to “cover news truthfully and constructively in order to promote unity and reconciliation in the country.” Soldiers were placed in newsrooms at TV and radio stations until October 1.

Because he was an ally of Thaksin, Mingkwan Saengsuwan, Director-General of the Mass Communications Organization of Thailand (MCOT) and TV Channel 9, was briefly detained and pressured to quit his position. The coup makers also ordered the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology to control or block the distribution of information through the internet that is critical of the coup maker’s actions. More than 300 community radio stations in Thailand’s northern provinces, Thaksin’s political stronghold, were closed down, and at least 10 anti-coup websites have been taken off the internet.

“At this point, the questions regarding the human rights situation in Thailand should be addressed to the military authority,” Adams said. “The military authority still has influence over the interim government and is capable of interfering in every important decision.”

On October 1, the CNS announced a new interim constitution. Unlike the previous constitution, which contained a wide range of human rights provisions and protections, the interim constitution only vaguely addresses the protection of human rights by stating that “the human dignity, right, liberty and equality of Thai people, which have been protected in accordance with Thailand’s tradition in the democratic government with the king as head of state, shall be protected by this constitution.”

“The coup makers made a big error in revoking the previous constitution, which was more than adequate to protect basic rights and establish a functioning democracy,” said Adams. “The problem in Thailand has not been the basic law, it has been the inability of key institutions like the National Election Commission, the Counter-corruption Commission, and the National Human Rights Commission to function independently and check the misuse of power by the government and other vested interests, including the military.”

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the interim constitution does nothing to address institutional weaknesses in Thailand’s governance structures. Instead of strengthening the independence of key institutions, it allows the CNS to retain control over the government and all of its agencies. CNS Chairman General Sonthi now has the power to appoint and remove the interim prime minister.

In addition, the CNS also holds the power to:

  • Appoint a 250-member National Assembly, which will serve as an interim parliament, as well as its chairperson and deputy;
  • Appoint a 2,000-member National Confederation, which will nominate candidates to sit in the Constitutional Drafting Council;
  • Select a 100-member Constitutional Drafting Council from a shortlist of 200 candidates to be proposed by the National Confederation;
  • Select 10 eminent persons to join a 35-member Constitutional Drafting Committee, which will prepare and submit the draft constitution to the Constitutional Drafting Council;
  • Consider and give recommendations on the draft constitution;
  • Together with the Cabinet, reinstate one of the previous constitutions if the Constitutional Drafting Council fails to finish the draft within 180 days after its first meeting, or if the draft constitution is turned down by a national referendum;
  • Call special meetings with the prime minister and the cabinet anytime and on any matter.

Unlike the previous constitution, the interim constitution does not require the interim government and CNS to be accountable for misconduct. The previous constitution stated in Chapter 11: “During a meeting of the National Assembly, any member of the National Assembly has the right to submit a motion to request the Council of Ministers to give statements of fact or explain important problems in connection with the administration of the state affairs.”

“The interim constitution has significantly weakened human rights guarantees that existed under the 1997 Constitution,” said Adams. “Until a civilian government is in charge, there is every reason to be concerned about the potential for abuse of basic rights by the military authorities.”

General Surayud, a retired Army chief, stated that the two key issues facing him are the resolution of political conflict at the national level and dealing with the unrest in the southern border provinces.

Human Rights Watch said that the interim government and the military authority need to quickly address the weakness of existing human rights mechanisms in Thailand. Although the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has not been abolished by the coup, this important institution has been belittled and sidelined by former Prime Minister Thaksin.

One key reform for General Surayud should include providing stronger political support for the NHRC by giving priority to the implementation of its recommendations, demonstrating respect for its findings and supporting increases in its resources. Similarly, there should be concrete measures to ensure a more stable and friendly environment for human rights defenders. The first step should be to hold consultations with human rights defenders and human rights organizations to better understand their concerns.

General Surayud said in his inaugural speech that he accepted his appointment to help reconcile Thailand. “The country’s political problems and the situation in the south are both important issues which require reconciliation and understanding to be resolved,” said the interim prime minister. “These problems are primarily caused by injustice in the society.”

“General Surayud was right to say that problems in Thailand have their roots in injustice,” said Adams. “But it remains to be seen how soon and how serious he can work to ensure that state-sanctioned abuses and the culture of impunity will be put to an end, in the south and elsewhere.”

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