Buddhist monks sit in front of the stage set up by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) at Bangkok's Ratchaprasong intersection on May 19, 2011 to mark the one-year anniversary of violent political confrontations that resulted in at least 90 people killed and more than 2,000 injured.

© 2011 Reuters

(New York) – The human rights situation in Thailand deteriorated in 2011 as the government failed to address impunity for human rights abuses by security forces, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2012. The government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which took power after winning the general election in July, has largely failed to fulfill its pledges to make human rights a priority.

Among the major problems in Thailand in 2011 was a widening crackdown on freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. Thai authorities stepped up a campaign to prosecute people holding opinions deemed offensive to the institution of the monarchy, enforced specifically by intensive surveillance of the internet. The authorities made little progress in ensuring accountability for the many deaths and injuries from political violence in 2010. Thousands of extrajudicial killings and other serious abuses over the past decade connected to the government’s national anti-drugs drive and counterinsurgency operations in southern border provinces also remain unresolved.

“Both the outgoing Abhisit government and the new government of Yingluck Shinawatra failed to fulfill repeated promises to implement policies that will protect human rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The trajectory for rights has been on an alarming slide in recent years under successive Thai governments.”

In the 676-page World Report 2012, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the formation of rights-respecting democracies in the region, Human Rights Watch said in the report.

Thailand suffered devastating political violence during the 2010 confrontations between the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the Red Shirts. At least 90 people died and more than 2,000 were injured in the violence, which also resulted in extensive damage from arson attacks in central Bangkok and several provincial capitals. The loss of life and injuries were caused by unnecessary use of lethal force by the government security forces, attacks by armed elements (the “Black Shirts”) operating in tandem with the UDD, and incitement to violence by some UDD leaders.

Despite its public assurances, the Yingluck government has provided little support to the independent inquiry into politically motivated violence conducted by the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand, Human Rights Watch said. The new government’s accountability effort focused on the 2010 violence has been sadly one-sided. It has pushed the police to make progress in the investigations of 13 murder cases in which soldiers were implicated to initiate post-mortem inquests and criminal prosecutions. However, government leaders displayed a disturbing lack of interest in the 12 murder cases that preliminary investigations by the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) found were connected to attacks by armed UDD elements.

Twelve senior UDD leaders were among those elected to parliament from the ruling Pheu Thai Party in the July general election. This raises concerns that their political influence and parliamentary immunity could be used to evade accountability for their roles in the 2010 violence, Human Rights Watch said.

“The new government came to power promising justice to victims of the violence in 2010,” Adams said. “Yet it has done nothing to reassure those victims that it will do more than previous governments to hold the people responsible for abuses accountable.”

Despite criticizing the previous government for cracking down on its critics, the new government has shown no greater respect for freedom of expression. The Yingluck government has used both the lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) statute in the criminal code and the Computer Crimes Act to suppress and prosecute alleged critics of the institution of the monarchy. A special task force led by Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung has stepped up internet surveillance and censorship, targeting website and social network portals accused of promoting allegedly anti-monarchy sentiments.

The National Human Rights Commission estimates that more than 400 lese majeste cases were sent to trial in 2010 and 2011. People charged with lese majeste offenses frequently are denied bail and remain in prison for months awaiting trial. In most cases, conviction has resulted in harsh penalties. In November, Ampon Tangnoppakul was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sending four SMS messages in 2010 that were considered offensive to the queen and the monarchy.

“Cell phone and internet users risk arrest and long prison terms because of the government’s misuse of laws on lese majeste and cyber-crimes,” Adams said.

The military has operated with impunity in Thailand’s southern border provinces since fighting between the government of then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and separatist insurgents began in 2004. No member of the security forces has been criminally prosecuted for human rights abuses in the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala. Separatist insurgents in the loose network of National Revolution Front-Coordinate (Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinas, BRN-Coordinate) used the state-sponsored abuses and heavy-handed tactics to recruit new members and justify their campaign of violence and terror, which has claimed more than 5,000 lives.

“The government is unable or unwilling to establish effective civilian control over the military and end abuses during counterinsurgency operations,” Adams said. “Unchecked state-sponsored abuses combined with insurgent attacks on civilians have created a deadly situation in the deep south.”

The failure to act against official abuses extended to the police. Despite the Yingluck government’s stated policy that it opposes the violent approach to drug suppression employed by Thaksin, it has not been willing to bring to justice police officers implicated in more than 2,500 unresolved extrajudicial killings and serious abuses committed during the 2003 “war on drugs” and ongoing drug suppression operations.

While hosting large numbers of asylum seekers and refugees, the government in some cases in 2011 violated its international legal obligations not to return people to countries where they were likely to face persecution, Human Rights Watch said.

Nur Muhammed, an ethnic Uighur, was arrested in August and handed directly into the custody of Chinese government officials and has since disappeared. China’s record of arbitrary detention and torture of ethnic Uighurs places Muhammed at grave risk of abuse. In 2011, Thai authorities at least twice “pushed back” boats carrying ethnic Rohingyas from Burma and Bangladesh despite credible allegations that such practices led to hundreds of deaths at sea in 2008 and 2009. On December 17 authorities forcibly returned a registered Lao Hmong refugee to Laos over the objections of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no law that recognizes refugee status. Asylum seekers and refugees who are arrested often face long periods of detention until they are accepted for resettlement or agree to be sent back to their own country.

Thai labor laws provide little protection to migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos who have been abused by police, civil servants, employers, and criminal elements. In October, during the severe flooding in Thailand that affected millions of people, nongovernmental organizations and media documented the targeting of migrant workers fleeing the flooding by police for arrest, extortion, and abuse.

“Prime Minister Yingluck should use her massive electoral victory and majority control of parliament to lead Thailand away from the political violence and human rights abuses that have plagued the country for years,” Adams said. “The government should urgently undertake concrete and systematic measures to end abuses, stop censorship, and eliminate impunity.”