June 21, 2016

Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha
Prime Minister
Government House
Pitsanulok Road, Dusit
Bangkok 10300 Thailand

Re: UN Security Council Candidacy

Dear Prime Minister,

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 for nearly three decades.

Thailand is currently seeking a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for 2017-2018, which will be decided in an election during the UN General Assembly session on June 28, 2016. The pledges that Thailand has made in support of its candidacy give priority to safeguarding human rights and humanitarian principles around the world.[1]

In Thailand’s aide memoire to seek support for its Security Council candidacy, the government stated that: “We are committed to human rights which are inviolable, inalienable, and universal.  Thailand was one of the first 48 countries to endorse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.  We have also consistently supported the work of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) since its inception in 2006.  Our human rights policy is guided by the principles of reaching out, hearing out and respecting the views of all.”

Human Rights Watch notes your stated commitment to human rights and views this candidacy as an important opportunity for your government to take concrete measures to immediately improve Thailand’s human rights record at home.

End Repressive Unaccountable Powers of the NCPO

Since you led the seizure of power on May 22, 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has severely repressed fundamental rights and freedoms that are critical elements for democratic rule. Contrary to obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a party, you have not specified the precise nature, scope, and characteristics of the threats that the NCPO justifies the continuance of rights-restricting measures.

The 2014 interim constitution permits the NCPO to carry out policies and actions without any effective oversight or accountability. The NCPO has wide discretion to issue orders and undertake acts the military authorities deem appropriate, regardless of the human rights implications.[2] The interim constitution further provides that NCPO members and anyone carrying out actions on behalf of the NCPO “shall be absolutely exempted from any wrongdoing, responsibility and liabilities.”[3] A current draft constitution, written by a NCPO-appointed committee, endorses unaccountable military involvement in governance even after a new government takes office.

You have repeatedly assured the Thai people and the international community that your government will accept democratic governance and respect human rights standards. A crucial first step in fulfilling those promises is revoking section 44 and other provisions in the interim constitution that allow the NCPO to operate with impunity and without any effective oversight.  

End Censorship and Ensure Free Expression

Freedom of expression is essential for your promised support for reconciliation in Thailand. Thailand’s campaign for a Security Council seat highlights a human rights policy guided by the principles of “reaching out, hearing out and respecting the views of all.”[4] But since the May 2014 coup, the government has enforced media censorship, placed increased surveillance on the Internet and online communications, and aggressively restricted free expression. The NCPO has also suppressed the views of persons openly critical of its policies and practices by using arrests and trials in civilian and military courts.

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned by the ongoing restrictions on any sort of debate or criticism of the government-sponsored draft constitution, on which a referendum is now scheduled to take place on August 7, 2016. People who posted online commentary criticizing the draft constitution have been detained. Many activists, academics, and politicians have been threatened with harsh penalties under the Referendum Act—including a sentence of 10 years in prison—for urging citizens to vote to reject the draft constitution. Your government needs to understand that free and open public debates on the draft constitution are vital if Thailand is to return to genuine democracy. By gagging dissenters and critics, the government has heightened the climate of fear ahead of the referendum.

The NCPO has also banned public gatherings of more than five people and prohibits anti-coup activities. Protesters who have peacefully expressed disagreement or defiance of the government have been arrested and sent to military courts, where they could face up to two-year prison terms. Since May 2014, at least 46 people have been charged with sedition for criticizing military rule and violating the NCPO’s ban on public assemblies and political gatherings. On April 28, 2016, eight people were arrested and charged with sedition and computer crimes for creating and posting satirical comments and memes mocking you as prime minister on a Facebook parody page. 

The NCPO has treated political discussions in general, and differences in political opinions specifically, as a threat to stability and national security. Acting on the NCPO’s orders, authorities have banned discussions at universities and other public venues about human rights, democracy, the monarchy, and the government’s performance. The government has blocked more than 200 websites as threats to national security.

Criticizing the monarchy is a serious criminal offense in Thailand. Persons charged with lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) are routinely denied bail and held in prison for many months awaiting trial. In most cases, convictions result in harsh sentences. As prime minister, you have frequently made statements setting out that a top priority of your administration is to prosecute critics of the monarchy. Thai authorities have now brought at least 59 lese majeste cases since the May 2014 coup, mostly for online commentary. On December 14, 2015, the government brought lese majeste charges in military court against a civilian for spreading sarcastic Facebook images and comments that were deemed to be mocking the king’s pet dog. In August 2015, Pongsak Sriboonpeng received 60 years in prison for his alleged lese majeste Facebook postings (later reduced to 30 years when he pleaded guilty), the longest recorded sentence for lese majeste in Thailand’s history. 

For Thailand to honor its pledge in its aide memoire to respect human rights, it should immediately end all restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and the media. The laws regarding lese majeste should bar private actions, which have been routinely used political purposes. Past practice has shown that the authorities have difficulty rejecting allegations filed by private individuals for fear of themselves being accused of disloyalty to the monarchy.

Cease Arbitrary Secret Detention and Military Trial of Civilians

Since the May 2014 coup, military authorities have summoned at least 1,340 activists, party supporters, journalists, and human rights defenders for questioning and “adjusting” their political attitude. Failure to abide by an NCPO summons is a criminal offense subject to trial in military courts. Under NCPO orders 3/2015 and 13/2016, the military can secretly detain people without charge or trial and interrogate them without access to lawyers or safeguards against mistreatment. Some have been held longer than the seven-day limit for administrative detention. Human Rights Watch submitted a letter to the Thai government on November 24, 2015, raising serious concerns regarding conditions at the 11th Army Circle military base after the deaths of fortuneteller Suriyan Sucharitpolwong and Police Maj. Prakrom Warunprapa—both charged with lese majeste—during their detention there.[5] In response to these and other cases, the NCPO summarily dismissed allegations that the military has tortured and ill-treated detainees – yet has still not provided any credible evidence to rebut these claims.

The NCPO has also compelled persons released from military detention to sign an agreement that they will not make political comments, become involved in political activities, or travel overseas without permission – all clear violations of their human rights. Failure to comply with such agreements could result in a new detention or a sentence of two years in prison.

NCPO order 37, issued on May 25, 2014, replaces civilian courts with military tribunals for some offenses, including Penal Code articles 107 to 112, which concern lese majeste and crimes regarding national security, and sedition under articles 113 to 118. In addition, individuals who violate the NCPO’s orders are also subject to trial by military court. Since May 2014, at least 1,629 cases have been brought to military courts across Thailand.

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Thailand is obligated to uphold and take measures to ensure basic fair trial rights. Governments are prohibited from using military courts to try civilians when civilian courts can still function. The Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors state compliance with the ICCPR, has stated in its General Comment on the right to a fair trial that “the trial of civilians in military or special courts may raise serious problems as far as the equitable, impartial and independent administration of justice is concerned.”

To fulfill the pledges that Thailand made in its aide memoire, Human Rights Watch urges that the military be ordered to stop arbitrarily arresting individuals and detaining them in undisclosed locations, and to permit them regular contacts with family and unhindered access to legal counsel of their choice. In addition, we also urge the Thai government to promptly ratify and implement the Convention against Enforced Disappearance and the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. We also call for the immediate revocation of the NCPO order permitting prosecution of civilians in military courts.

Ensure Accountability for Violations of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law

Thailand stated in its aide memoire that “Safety of an innocent civilian is particularly close to our heart.” It also wrote that “On conflict prevention, Thailand has been in the forefront of regional efforts in building trust and confidence and promoting preventive diplomacy through various mechanisms and frameworks.”

To be a credible player in international conflict prevention and conflict resolution, Thailand should demonstrate a good example at home. This means that the Thai government should hold to account all those responsible for committing serious human rights violations, provide justice for victims of abuses, and hold accountable all those responsible for abuses, regardless of position or rank.

Thailand’s security forces have committed serious human rights violations with impunity. No officials, commanders, soldiers, or police have been punished for unlawful killings or other wrongful use of force during the 2010 political confrontations, which left at least 90 dead and more than 2,000 injured. Nor have any security personnel been criminally prosecuted for serious violations of international humanitarian law related to counterinsurgency operations in the southern Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala provinces, where separatist insurgents have also committed numerous abuses. Successive Thai governments have shown no interest in investigating more than 2,000 extrajudicial killings related to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s “war on drugs” in 2003.

We urge your government to address the rights violations of all parties through a credible, impartial and independent justice system. As part of the process to promote justice and political reconciliation, the government should also provide prompt, fair, and adequate compensation for victims and their family members for human rights violations and misuse of force by state officials.

The government should also implement a comprehensive security strategy that fully complies with international human rights and humanitarian law standards. The Martial Law Act and the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation, which give government officials and security personnel in the southern border provinces immunity from prosecution, should be revoked.

Protect Human Rights Defenders

Thai authorities have an obligation to ensure that all people and organizations engaged in the protection and promotion of human rights are able to work in a safe and enabling environment. But the killing and enforced disappearance of human rights defenders and other civil society activists have been a serious blot on Thailand’s human rights record. More than 20 human rights defenders and civil society activists have been killed or forcibly disappeared since 2001. Investigations of these killings have suffered from inconsistent and sometimes shoddy investigations by the police, failures to provide adequate protection for witnesses, and the inability to tackle political influence connected to these crimes.

Even in serious criminal cases that are referred to the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI), those responsible are rarely prosecuted. For example, there has been no prosecution for the killing of an activist Buddhist monk, Phra Supoj Suwajano, who was stabbed to death in June 2005 in connection with his work to protect forests in northern Chiang Mai province from illegal land grabbing. The prosecution was poorly handled in the case of Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, who was forcibly disappeared in March 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 the south. And there has been no progress in the police investigation to locate prominent ethnic Karen activist Por Cha Lee Rakchongcharoen, known as “Billy,” who was forcibly disappeared after officials arrested him in April 2014 in Kaengkrachan National Park.

We are also concerned by the use of criminal lawsuits by the military to silence human rights defenders and make it more difficult for victims to voice their complaints. On May 17, 2016, the military’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Region 4 – which covers national security operations in the provinces along the southern border – filed a criminal complaint against prominent human rights activists Somchai Homlaor, Pornpen Khongkachonkie, and Anchana Heemmina for allegedly damaging the military’s reputation by publishing a report exposing torture of ethnic Malay Muslim insurgent suspects by security personnel. The complaint accuses the three of criminal defamation under the Penal Code and publicizing false information online under the Computer Crimes Act.

Protect the Right to Seek Asylum and Prevent Refoulement

Thailand’s campaign for Security Council membership features its longstanding practice of helping refugees and displaced persons.[6] Specifically, Thailand states in its aide memoire that “Thailand has long upheld a humanitarian tradition of helping refugees and displaced persons from neighboring countries, having hosted more than a million over the past three decades. Thailand has also extended assistance to humanitarian efforts far beyond our borders.”

Despite this admirable record of humanitarian action, Thailand has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, and has no domestic asylum law. The Thai government should promptly ratify and act in accordance with these treaties. 

The Thai government has forcibly returned refugees and asylum seekers to countries where they are likely to face persecution, in violation of international law and over protests from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and several foreign governments. These include the deportation of two Chinese activists to China in November 2015 and 109 ethnic Uighurs to China in July 2015.

In May 2015 Thailand hosted an international meeting to address the thousands of ethnic Rohingya asylum seekers and migrants stranded at sea in small boats, but, unlike Malaysia and Indonesia, rejected working with UNHCR to conduct refugee status determination screenings or set up temporary shelters for those rescued.

Asylum seekers, including Rohingya from Burma and Uighurs from China, arrested in Thailand face long periods of detention until they are accepted for resettlement or agree to be repatriated at their own expense. Child migrants and asylum seekers are regularly held in squalid immigration facilities and police lock-ups.  The Thai government should immediately devise alternatives to detention for children migrants and asylum seekers, and release on their own recognizance all refugees recognized by the UNHCR office. 

We strongly urge your government to respect the international obligation not to forcibly return any asylum seeker or refugee to where their life or freedom is at risk. The government should also announce that it will not seek to forcibly return the more than 140,000 Burmese asylum seekers from camps on the Thai-Burmese border. Instead, the government should ensure access to proper and impartial screening and status determination procedures for any asylum seeker, including those detained in immigration facilities, prior to deportation or forced return.  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.

***

Human Rights Watch hopes that you will give due consideration to making public pledges and commitments, which should be specific, credible, and measurable, on the aforementioned human rights issues.

Yours sincerely,

Brad Adams
Executive Director, Asia Division

 

[1] Aide-Memoire, Thailand’s candidature for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for the term 2017-2018. (http://www.thaiembassy.org/unmissionnewyork/en/relation/53893-Thailand-C...)

[2]  Section 44 of the 2014 interim constitution states: “Where the head of the NCPO is of the opinion that it is necessary for the benefit of reforms in any field, or to strengthen public unity and harmony, or for the prevention, disruption or suppression of any act that undermines public peace and order or national security, the monarchy, national economics or administration of State affairs,” the head of the NCPO is empowered to “issue orders, suspend or act as deemed necessary. … Such actions are completely legal and constitutional.” Interim Constitution, section 44.

[3] Interim Constitution, section 48.

[4] Aide-Memoire, Thailand’s candidature for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for the term 2017-2018. (http://www.thaiembassy.org/unmissionnewyork/en/relation/53893-Thailand-C...)

[6] Aide-Memoire, Thailand’s candidature for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for the term 2017-2018. (http://www.thaiembassy.org/unmissionnewyork/en/relation/53893-Thailand-C...)