August 15, 2011
Pitsanulok Road, Dusit
Bangkok 10300 Thailand
Re:Your Government’s Human Rights Agenda
Dear Prime Minister,
Congratulations on your election victory and on becoming Prime Minister of Thailand.
Human Rights Watch is a nongovernmental organization that monitors and reports on human rights issues in more than 90 countries around the world. We have reported on Thailand and the region for nearly three decades.
As you move forward to form a government, we write to urge you to address a number of important concerns regarding major human rights issues in Thailand.
Accountability for political violence and related abuses
From March to May 2010 Thailand experienced the most violent confrontations since pro-democracy protests against military rule in 1992. At least 90 people died and more than 2,000 were injured. Research by Human Rights Watch found that a number of factors contributed to these deaths and injuries, including excessive and unnecessary use of lethal force by government security forces, attacks by armed elements within the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the "Red Shirts," and incitement to violence by some UDD leaders (see Human Rights Watch report "Descent into Chaos" (https://www.hrw.org/reports/2011/05/03/descent-chaos). While many protest leaders and UDD rank-and-file members have been charged with serious criminal offenses, very little progress has been made by the Justice Ministry's Department of Special Investigation (DSI) and the police to prosecute soldiers and government officials implicated in abuses.
We have called on all sides of the political divide to actively support and participate in credible, independent, and impartial inquiries into politically motivated violence and abuses. It is critical that the Thai government hold all those responsible to account to provide justice for victims of abuses and to stop the vicious cycle of violence and impunity that persists in Thailand.
The government of Abhisit Vejjajiva established the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) to investigate and report on the 2010 political violence. However, the TRCT was not given all-important subpoena power, which is necessary to obtain evidence and question reluctant witnesses, particularly police officers and soldiers. The TRCT has also been unable to obtain complete information about security force deployment plans and operations, autopsy reports, witness testimony, photos, or video footage from the military and the police.
We welcome your remarks during and after the election campaign assuring that your administration will fully support the ongoing inquiry taken by the TRCT as part of the political reconciliation process. We urge your government to provide the TRCT with much needed subpoena power, and to provide it sufficient resources to enable it to act independently and effectively. At the same time, your government should ensure that the army and other military branches, police, and other government agencies fully cooperate with the TRCT and other official inquiries, including those conducted by parliamentary commissions and the National Human Rights Commission.
We also urge your government to permit the TRCT full access to assistance from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, other UN agencies, foreign governments, and national and international human rights organizations.
According to the TRCT inquiries, hundreds of those detained in connection with last year’s political protests have been summarily and without sufficient basis charged with serious criminal offenses as a result of political pressure from the previous government. Many of them have been denied bail. Your government should urgently assess the status of those detainees and ensure that they are treated in accordance with due process of law and human rights standards, such as having access to legal counsel and temporary release on bail. If there is no credible reason to believe that the accused will abscond, interfere with witnesses or evidence, or cause harm, they should be allowed pre-trial release on bail.
Unfortunately, there also has been a failure to seriously investigate alleged human rights violations and criminal offenses committed by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), known as the "Yellow Shirts," during the 2008 protests. Cases of senior PAD leaders and members have stalled before reaching trial, as have efforts to seek compensation for damages caused by their protest. At the same time, the Thai government has made little progress to hold legally accountable the politicians identified as responsible for ordering police to employ excessive force to disperse the PAD protesters rallying in front of the Parliament on October 7, 2008. Therefore, we urge your government to establish a separate, impartial, transparent, and independent inquiry into those cases of violence and human rights abuses that occurred in 2008 as well.
As part of the process to promote justice and political reconciliation, the Thai government should provide prompt, fair, and adequate compensation for victims and their family members for human rights violations and misuse of force by state officials, as well as assistance to families who suffered injury or property loss due to demonstrations and government responses to demonstrators.
Finally, it is important to implement fundamental reforms of law enforcement agencies to ensure they are capable of professionally handling public demonstrations in accordance with international standards, including the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Such reforms could consist of providing necessary training and adequate remuneration so that the police can be responsible for internal security, including riot control and overseeing demonstrations, and ensuring strict accountability for officers who commit abuses in the context of protest dispersal operations.
Violence and human rights abuses in the southern border provinces
Since January 2004, Thailand’s southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat have been the scene of a brutal internal armed conflict that has seen over 4,300 people killed. Civilians have accounted for approximately 90 percent of those deaths, which have come from both the ethnic Thai Buddhist and ethnic Malay Muslim populations. The Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani insurgency in the loose network of BRN-Coordinate (National Revolution Front-Coordinate) is a separatist movement involving Thailand’s southern border provinces. The insurgents have frequently attacked and killed civilians and instilled terror in the civilian population. As detailed in our 2007 report “No One Is Safe” (https://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2007/08/27/no-one-safe), the insurgents use violence to drive out the ethnic Thai Buddhist populations, keep ethnic Malay Muslims under control, and discredit the Thai authorities.
At the same time, the government’s counterinsurgency campaign has also resulted in numerous human rights abuses, such as extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture. Elements within regular and volunteer government security units have also engaged in tit-for-tat retaliation against civilians for insurgent attacks. But no member of the security forces has been successfully prosecuted for serious human rights abuses in the southern border provinces. To date, the government has failed to satisfactorily resolve any of the enforced disappearance cases mentioned our 2007 report “It Was Like Suddenly My Son No Longer Existed” (https://www.hrw.org/reports/2007/03/19/it-was-suddenly-my-son-no-longer-existed).
The Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation, enforced in the southern border provinces since 2005, gives government officials and security personnel effective immunity from prosecution for most acts committed while implementing the decree. Ongoing abuses by government personnel committed with impunity have been widely used by insurgent groups to justify their attacks and recruit new members.
To address the deteriorating situation in the southern border provinces, your government should implement a comprehensive security strategy in full accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law. At the same time, it is essential that your government establish effective civilian control over the military and other branches of the security forces. There should be prompt, independent, and impartial investigations into allegations of abuses by security personnel and government officials, and prosecutions of those found responsible, regardless of rank.
In response to numerous credible complaints regarding abuses in detention, your government should ensure that all persons detained by the police and the security forces are held at recognized places of detention, and are not subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The detainees should be permitted regular contacts with family and unhindered access to legal counsel of their choice. In addition, we also urge your government to promptly sign and ratify the Convention against Enforced Disappearance and the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, and adopt all necessary legislation and other measures to comply with their terms.
As violence and abuses in the southern border provinces continues, your government should provide prompt, fair, and adequate remedies for the victims and family members of those who have suffered violations of their rights by the security forces and other government officials. Your government should also consider providing assistance to victims of abuses by insurgent groups and others who have suffered harm by either side in the conflict.
Abusive drug suppression policy
We agree that the illegal use and trafficking of drugs is a serious problem in Thailand. But we urge you not to adopt the discredited and inhumane policies of previous governments. We suggest that you and your government refrain from setting out plans or goals to “eradicate” illegal drug use in a year. This is simply an impossible feat that has never been achieved in any country in the world. Putting pressure on law enforcement officers and local administrative officials to meet this or similar arbitrary deadlines is only likely to lead to the kinds of killings and other abuses that Human Rights Watch documented extensively in the 2003 “war on drugs” (see our report “Not Enough Graves” https://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/07/07/not-enough-graves).
The starting point for your government should be to ensure that any new drug policy not repeat the mistakes of the past. The 2007 Independent Committee for the Investigation, Study and Analysis of the Formulation and Implementation of Narcotic Suppression Policy (ICID) found that the policy formulation and assessment of the "war on drugs" was driven more by an all-out effort to achieve the campaign's political goals rather than by respect for human rights and due process of law. We urge your government to implement the recommendation presented by the ICID that there should be a further inquiry into the killings of 2,819 people during the 2003 "war on drugs" to bring the perpetrators to account, as well as to end the cycle of abuse and impunity in drug suppression operations. Your government should also institute a policy to provide prompt, fair, and adequate compensation for the victims and family members of victims of human rights violations committed in the context of drug suppression operations.
In addition, we remain deeply concerned about the previous government’s policy that subjects drug users to compulsory treatment at facilities run by the military and the Interior Ministry. Each year, 10,000 to 15,000 people are sent to drug treatment centers, where drug treatment is primarily based on boot-camp-style physical exercise. Most people sent to these facilities experience withdrawal from drugs with little or no medical supervision or medication. Upon release, many of them return to drug use. We recommend that your administration should take concrete steps to reduce drug users’ fear of seeking health services by publicly declaring that drug users seeking health services will not be penalized or forced into drug treatment based solely on their self-identification as drug users. In addition, your administration should also repeal any policy that encourages law enforcement officers and local administrative officials to stop or arrest suspected drug users in order to meet predetermined targets for drug treatment enrollment.
Protection for freedom of expression
Freedom of expression is essential for the process of democratization and political reconciliation in Thailand. However, since the September 2006 coup, there has been a growing constriction by the government of critical and dissident opinions. To counter anti-government protests led by the UDD last year, Thai authorities enforced emergency powers to shut down more than 1,000 websites, a satellite television station, online television channels, publications, and more than 40 community radio stations. Even after the state of emergency was lifted in December 2010, media outlets of the UDD continue to be targeted. On April 26, 2011, armed police officers joined officials from the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to raid 13 community radio stations in Bangkok and surrounding provinces associated with the UDD. The stations were forced off the air in response to a complaint filed by the army that they were broadcasting material deemed offensive to the monarchy.
Thai authorities use the Computer Crimes Act and article 112 of the penal code on lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) to enforce online censorship and persecute dissidents, particularly those connected with the UDD, accusing them of threatening national security. The National Human Rights Commission estimates that there were more than 400 lese majeste cases in 2010, nearly a threefold increase from the 164 cases in the previous year.
Often those charged with lese majeste offenses are denied bail and remain in prison for several months awaiting trial. In a number of cases, these trials have been closed to the public. Particularly harsh punishments have been delivered by the court in several instances, such as the cases of Darunee Charnchoensilpakul, who was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment, and Tanthawut Taweewarodomkul, who received a 13-year prison term.
In light of the above-mentioned trends, your government should immediately end all restrictions on the media that violate the right to freedom of expression, and amend or revoke such laws such as the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation and the Computer Crimes Act. In addition, we urge your government to amend the laws regarding lese majeste so that only the government can bring charges and private action is barred, since unfortunately private individuals may use the law for political purposes and it is hard for the authorities to reject such allegations for fear of themselves being accused of disloyalty to the monarchy.
Protection of human rights defenders
The killing of human rights defenders and other civil society activists has been a serious blot on Thailand’s human rights record. More than 20 human rights defenders and civil society activists have been killed since 2001. However, investigations of these killings have suffered from inconsistent and sometimes shoddy investigatory procedures by the police, the failure to provide adequate protection for witnesses, and the inability to tackle political influence connected to these crimes. Even in serious criminal cases involving the public interest that are referred to the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI), those responsible are rarely prosecuted. In one such case, a Buddhist monk, Phra Supoj Suwajano, was stabbed to death on June 17, 2005, in connection with his work to protect forests in northern Chiang Mai province from illegal land grabbing. In another case, a Muslim lawyer, Somchai Neelapaijit, was “disappeared” on March 12, 2004, by a group of police officers after he had played a high-profile role in exposing police torture and other abuses related to counterinsurgency operations in Thailand’s southern border provinces.
In line with the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, your government should make a strong public commitment to protect people who dedicate themselves to protecting the environment or promoting human rights.
Protection of the right to seek asylum and prevention of refoulement
Thailand has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, and has no domestic asylum law. Thai authorities continue to violate the international prohibition against refoulement by returning refugees and asylum seekers to countries where they are likely to face persecution, as documented in our 2004 report “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” (https://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/02/24/out-sight-out-mind).
Despite strong protests by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations secretary-general, the army on December 28, 2009, forcibly returned 4,689 Lao Hmong, including 158 UNHCR-designated “persons of concern,” to Laos. In November and December 2010, Thai authorities sent back to Burma thousands of Burmese fleeing armed conflicts in border areas before UNHCR could assess whether they were returning voluntarily.
During the Abhisit government, Thai authorities failed to fulfill their promises to conduct an independent investigation into instances in 2008, 2009, and 2011 when the navy pushed boats laden with ethnic Rohingyas from Burma and Bangladesh back to international waters, which allegedly resulted in hundreds of deaths. Thailand has refused to permit UNHCR to have access to Rohingyas held in immigration detention for the purpose of refugee status determination, effectively denying them their right to seek asylum and condemning them to indefinite detention since the government of Burma refuses to acknowledge Rohingya as their citizens.
Such incidents have seriously undermined Thailand’s historical record of offering protection to asylum seekers. We strongly urge your government to respect the international obligation not to forcibly return (refoule) any asylum seeker or refugee. In particular, your government should publicly state that it will not seek to forcibly return more than 140,000 Burmese asylum seekers from camps on the Thai-Burma border. In this connection, your government should also guarantee access to proper screening and status determination procedures by UNHCR for any asylum seeker, including those detained in immigration facilities, prior to deportation or forced return. Meanwhile, in the absence of an effective state procedure for assessing the claims of asylum seekers, your government should allow UNHCR to resume Refugee Status Determination activities for all asylum seekers in accordance with its mandate to provide international protection to refugees.
Thailand has a strong responsibility to ensure the protection of asylum seekers. Your government should immediately ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.
Support rights of migrant workers
Migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos continue to be mistreated with impunity by local police, civil servants, and employers in Thailand, as documented in our 2010 report “From the Tiger to the Crocodile” (https://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2010/02/23/tiger-crocodile). A poorly designed and implemented “nationality verification” registration scheme caused hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to lose their legal status, deepening their vulnerability to exploitation. Female migrant workers are also vulnerable to sexual violence and trafficking.
We call on your government to establish a special commission to independently and impartially investigate allegations of systematic violations of the basic rights of migrants by police and other authorities across the country. This commission should have the power to subpoena witnesses and compel provision of documentary evidence, and produce a public report. It should be empowered to make recommendations for criminal investigations in specific cases and for changes in laws, regulations, and policies that adversely affect the human rights of migrants.
We also urge your government to take all necessary measures to end torture and ill-treatment of migrants in custody, and ensure that all allegations of mistreatment are promptly and thoroughly investigated and that all those responsible are appropriately prosecuted.
The Thai government should also amend articles 88 and 100 of the Labor Relations
Act of 1975 to allow for persons of all nationalities to apply to establish a trade union and serve as a legally recognized trade union officer, and ensure that the revised
Labor Relations Act is fully in compliance with the standards set out in International Labor Organization Convention No. 87 (Freedom of Association).
Support a United Nations commission of inquiry for Burma
The dire human rights situation in Burma has driven thousands of asylum seekers and migrants across the border into Thailand. After the new Burmese government took office in March this year, there has been no improvement on important issues, including with respect to basic freedoms of expression, association and assembly; political prisoners; and abuses by government forces and armed ethnic groups in the country’s conflict areas. Our recent report “Dead Men Walking” (https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/07/12/burma-war-crimes-against-convict-porters) found that the Burmese government forced several hundred criminal convicts to serve as porters for army units in combat areas in Karen State in violation of international humanitarian law. The convict porters were used as “human shields” to walk through heavily mined areas and to deter ambushes, and faced extrajudicial killings, torture and other abuses. As an immediate neighbor and a core member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which adopts the promotion and protection of human rights as one of its fundamental principles, Thailand cannot afford to look the other way and be indifferent to the deteriorating situation in Burma.
In this regard, we urge your government to take a proactive position on accountability for serious human rights violations in Burma by publicly supporting the establishment of an international Commission of Inquiry for Burma. Such a commission should investigate reports of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Burma by all parties since 2002, and identify perpetrators of such violations with a view to ensuring that those responsible are held accountable. We believe that such an inquiry will not only support and protect the victims of serious abuses in Burma and halt the continuing cycle of impunity, but will also generate support for peace-building and broader respect for human rights in Burma.
Victims of serious international crimes in Burma deserve recognition and justice. For years special mechanisms of the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and others have documented and publicly reported on serious, widespread, and systemic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Burma; violations that in some cases amount to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. It is time for Thailand to join other states in an effort to ensure that these crimes will be subject to greater international scrutiny. The establishment of an international Commission of Inquiry would be an important first step.
Of the issues listed above, your government should quickly take the following actions to demonstrate a firm commitment to address human rights concerns in Thailand:
- Publicly order the military, police, and other government agencies to fully cooperate with official inquiries regarding human rights abuses.
- Pass a cabinet resolution to provide the TRCT with much needed subpoena power and sufficient resources to enable it to act independently and effectively.
- Assess the status of those detained in connection with the UDD protests and insurgency in the southern border provinces to ensure that they are properly treated in accordance with due process of law and human rights standards, including having appropriate pre-trial release on bail.
- End all restrictions on the media that violate the right to freedom of expression, and announce a concrete plan to revoke such laws such as the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation, the Computer Crimes Act, and the laws regarding lese majeste.
We trust that you will give due consideration to giving priority to the promotion and protection of human rights in your new government. We would be happy to discuss these concerns with you directly and offer you any recommendations and assistance we are able to provide. We thank you for your consideration of our views and look forward to your response.
Executive Director, Asia Division