Jose L. Cuisia Jr., chairperson of Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, presents the 2019 Ramon Magsaysay awardee Angkhana Neelapaijit from Thailand during an event in Manila, Philippines on Friday, August 2, 2019. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Aaron Favila
The resignation of two prominent human rights advocates from the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT) is an alarm bell signaling the need for a total revamp of the flawed and scandal-ridden agency.

Commissioners Angkhana Neelapaijit and Tuenjai Deetes announced their resignations on Tuesday, stating they could no longer perform their duties independently and effectively due to restrictive regulations and a hostile and unsupportive office environment. Two other commissioners had resigned earlier. The seven-member commission now cannot function, unable to muster a quorum.

Once a model for human rights commissions throughout Southeast Asia, the Thai commission’s international ranking was downgraded in 2015 by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions and the United Nations Human Rights Council because of the government’s manipulation of the selection process for commissioners to ensure a pro-government political bias. The situation went from bad to worse as a result of the 2017 NHRCT Act, which further stripped away the agency’s independence and transformed it into a de facto government mouthpiece, contrary to the United Nations Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions (the Paris Principles).

Angkhana and Tuanjai tried to defy such restrictive regulations but faced administrative reprisals. In May 2019, the commission’s chairperson targeted Angkhana with a disciplinary inquiry and threatened to impeach her for observing legal proceedings and documenting human rights violations against opposition politicians and critics of the government. On Friday, Angkhana was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, known as “Asia’s Nobel Prize,” for “championing justice, case after painful case.”

Thailand needs a credible national human rights body. The government and every political party in parliament should work together to amend the problematic NHRCT Act and make it fully compatible with international standards. The selection of commissioners should be more inclusive and transparent than the current process, which has resulted in the appointment of inexperienced and unqualified candidates from a pool of government officials instead of human rights advocates.

Only with significant reforms will the human rights commission be able to fulfill its duty to serve as an independent bulwark against human rights violations in Thailand.