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Thailand: Serious Backsliding on Human Rights

Unchecked Abuses by Security Forces, Crackdown on Internet Critics, Forced returns of Refugees

(New York) - The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva largely failed to fulfill its pledges to make human rights a priority, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2010.

The 612-page report, the organization's 20th annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights trends in more than 90 nations and territories worldwide. In Thailand, there were growing crackdowns on protesters and other critics, including intensive surveillance of the internet, a failure to curb abuses by security forces in responding to the longtime insurgency in the south, and serious breaches of the country's obligations to protect refugees and asylum seekers.

"While Prime Minister Abhisit sometimes said the right things about human rights in 2009, his actions didn't match his words," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government continually undermined respect for human rights and due process of law in Thailand."

Mounting challenges from the red-shirted opposition group, the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), has made Prime Minister Abhisit increasingly dependent on support from the military for his political survival, Human Rights Watch said. In response to the UDD's violent protests in Pattaya and Bangkok, the government declared a state of emergency on April 11 and 12. Soldiers used tear gas to clear protesters and fired on protesters with live ammunition. At least 123 people were injured and two killed in Bangkok on April 13 in clashes between armed UDD protesters, soldiers, and various neighborhood watch groups.

The government's double standards in law enforcement worsened political tensions and deepened polarization. Leaders and members of the UDD were arrested, detained, and criminally charged after the dispersal of their protests. But the government has ignored public demands for an impartial investigation into politically motivated violence and human rights abuses committed by the yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) during its protests and occupation of the Government House and Suvarnabhumi airport in 2008, which created conditions that enabled Abhisit to come to power. Long delays in prosecuting PAD leaders are fuelling a growing public perception that they are immune to legal accountability.

In Thailand's deep south, where a separatist insurgency began in 2004, Abhisit's administration has allowed the military to continue to operate with impunity. No member of the security forces has been criminally prosecuted for human rights abuses in the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala, even in high profile cases such as the Krue Se mosque killings, the Tak Bai crackdown, the torture and killing of Imam Yapa Kaseng, and the Al-Farquan mosque massacre.

The government also failed to establish effective civilian control over the military and was unable to scrutinize the enforcement of abusive special security laws by the military. Separatist insurgents in the loose network of Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinas (National Revolution Front-Coordinate or BRN-Coordinate) used these state-sponsored abuses and heavy-handed tactics to recruit new members and justify their campaign of violence and terror, which has claimed more than 3,900 lives since January 2004.

The failure to act against official abuses extended to the police. Despite the government's strong opposition to the violent approach to drug suppression by the exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, it remained unwilling to bring to justice officials allegedly responsible for more than 2,500 unresolved extrajudicial killings and serious abuses committed during Thaksin's 2003 "war on drugs" and ongoing drug suppression operations by the police.

The government stood by while top police commanders refused to accept the ruling of the National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC) that seven high-ranking police officers should be charged with criminal offenses and subject to disciplinary action in connection with the crackdown on the PAD on October 7, 2008, when police violently dispersed some 2,000 protesters in front of parliament. Two PAD protesters died and 443 were injured. At the local level, the government continued to ignore systemic police violence and extortion targeting the over two million migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos.

"Democracy in Thailand suffers badly from draconian laws on lese majeste and cyber crimes," said Adams. "A climate of fear looms over civil discourse and in cyberspace as a result of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression under the Abhisit government."

The government also has used both the lese majeste statute in the Criminal Code and the new Computer Crimes Act to suppress critics of the monarchy and persecute perceived government enemies. In January, Suwicha Thakor, an outdoor sporting enthusiast, was arrested, accused of posting comments constituting lese majeste on the Internet, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In August, Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul (also known as Da Torpedo) was sentenced to 18 years in prison for insulting the monarchy in her speeches at a UDD rally. She is allegedly being held in solitary confinement in Lard Yao prison and was denied access to medical treatment for a severely infected jaw. A number of government critics have fled Thailand rather than face similar charges.

Thai authorities also increased Internet surveillance, leading to the arrests of bloggers and web board participants. Several people were arrested for translating foreign media reports about King Bhumibol Adulyadej's poor health and posting those reports along with their comments online. Authorities closed down more than 18,000 websites that they alleged promoted anti-monarchy sentiments or posed threats to national security.

Abhisit's government blatantly breached Thailand's obligations under international law to protect refugees and asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said.

The Thai government gave the green light to the army to deport more than 4,600 Lao Hmong refugees and asylum seekers on December 28, despite a chorus of international outcry that included the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Secretary-General. Human Rights Watch seriously questions the claims made by high-level Thai officials, including Prime Minister Abhisit and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, that the deportation was "voluntary."

Throughout the year, Thai soldiers severely restricted access to food and medical services provided by humanitarian organizations, prompting Medicins Sans Frontieres to pull out of Huay Nam Khao camp in May. Just prior to the mass forced return, more than 5,000 soldiers and other security personnel surrounded the camp, jammed mobile phone signals in the area, prevented access by the media, and singled out and snatched up camp leaders to defuse anticipated resistance. Such coercive and intimidating measures are clearly contrary to claims of "voluntary repatriation," Human Rights Watch said.

In another expression of hostile policy toward refugees and asylum seekers, in January, in his capacity as chair of the National Security Council, Abhisit approved a directive authorizing the military to intercept boats carrying ethnic Rohingya from Burma and Bangladesh. The military subsequently captured several boats crowded with Rohingya and towed the rickety vessels back into the open ocean with inadequate supplies of food and water. While Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, the Thai government has an obligation under international law of nonrefoulement (non-return) of persons to places where their life or freedom is at risk.

"Prime Minister Abhisit did not honor his pledge to uphold human rights principles and international law in 2009," Adams said. "Getting Thailand back on track as a rights-respecting nation in 2010 is crucial both for the country and the region."

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