(New York) – The new Thai government’s policy statement fails to provide a pathway for restoring respect for human rights after five years of military rule, Human Rights Watch said today. Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha will present the policy statement for his second term in office on July 25-26, 2019.
“Prime Minister Prayuth’s second term is starting with the same blanket disregard for human rights that characterized his first term,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “His policy statement contains no language whatsoever addressing the serious problems under repressive military rule since the 2014 coup. Whatever hopes that the new government would bring about human rights reforms and advance democratic, civilian rule suffered a serious setback with the failure to include any commitments in the policy statement.”
Prayuth’s 40-page policy statement, which was submitted to the parliament speaker on July 19, does not discuss human rights issues in the country. It does not even discuss Prayuth’s own “national human rights agenda,” which he released in February 2018 with much fanfare.
Key civil and political rights problems that need to be addressed by the new government include:
Impunity for Human Rights Violations
As chairman of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta, Prayuth wielded power from 2014-2019 unhindered by administrative, legislative, or judicial oversight or accountability, including for human rights violations. While the NCPO disbanded after the new government took office, the constitution that took effect in 2017 protects junta members and anyone acting on the junta’s orders from being held accountable for human rights violations committed during military rule. And no redress is available for victims of those rights violations.
Restrictions on Freedom of Expression
The NCPO prosecuted hundreds of activists, journalists, politicians, and dissidents for peacefully expressing their views, on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and insulting the monarchy. During Prayuth’s first term, the junta frequently used these overbroad laws to arbitrarily punish and silence critics. Under the new government, the military retains the power to summon anyone deemed to have criticized the government or the monarchy, question them without the presence of a lawyer, and compel them to promise to end their criticism to gain release.
Protection of Human Rights Defenders
A climate of fear persists among rights activists and critics of the government. Even those who fled Thailand to escape political persecution are not safe. At least three Thai political activists have been forcibly disappeared in Laos. Two others have been killed. Another three Thai political activists returned by Vietnam to Thailand have also been missing.
Successive governments have disregarded Thailand’s obligation to ensure that all human rights defenders and organizations can carry out their work in a safe and enabling environment. Against the backdrop of a recent string of brutal attacks targeting prominent pro-democracy activists and dissidents, the government has yet to develop a credible policy to better protect them. Thai authorities have not seriously investigated these attacks, and instead repeatedly told activists and dissidents to give up political activity in exchange for state protection.
During his first term, Prayuth frequently stated that Thailand would act to end so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP), which are used by government agencies and private companies to intimidate and silence those reporting human rights violations. However, these cases continue, frequently as criminal defamation cases. Prayuth’s policy statement makes no mention of Thailand’s much advertised commitment to promote business practices compatible with human rights standards.
The policy statement also does not address the urgent need to revamp the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand. The United Nations Human Rights Council has downgraded the commission because of its substandard selection process for commissioners and its lack of political independence. Revisions to the law adopted during Prayuth’s first term further weakened the commission and transformed it into a de facto government mouthpiece.
Enforced Disappearance, Torture, Violence, and Abuses in Southern Border Provinces
Since January 2004, more than 90 percent of the 6,800 people killed in the ongoing armed conflict in Thailand’s southern border provinces have been civilians from both ethnic Malay Muslim and ethnic Thai Buddhist communities. Although the insurgents have committed egregious abuses, rights violations by Thai security forces have greatly exacerbated the situation.
Thai authorities regularly failed to conduct serious and credible inquiries into torture allegations and enforced disappearances. Military detention, which lacks effective safeguards against abuse, occurs regularly during government counterinsurgency operations in the southern border provinces. Successive Thai governments have failed to prosecute security personnel responsible for torture, unlawful killings, and other serious human rights violations against ethnic Malay Muslims. In many cases, Thai authorities provided financial compensation to the victims or their families in exchange for their agreement not to speak out or file criminal cases against officials. Despite these concerns, Prayuth’s policy statement does not address human rights problems in Thailand’s southern border provinces.
Prayuth’s policy statement only vaguely mentions the importance of Thailand meeting its international obligations. The junta did little to promote Thailand’s adherence to the core international human rights treaties. Although Thailand signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2012, it has yet to ratify the treaty and Thailand’s penal code does not recognize enforced disappearance. Thailand also does not have a law that criminalizes torture, as required by the Convention against Torture, which it ratified in 2007. The junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly suddenly suspended its consideration of the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance bill in February 2017, and the government has not set a new time frame for reconsidering the bill. Prayuth’s policy statement does not include this law among legislation to be urgently introduced by the government.
“Thailand’s foreign friends should not let the recent elections become an excuse for ignoring the deteriorating human rights situation in the country,” Adams said. “There should be no rush to return to business as usual without securing serious commitments and corresponding action from the new government to respect human rights.”