Human Rights Developments
Thailand, not usually considered a major human rights abuser in Asia, became the focus of international attention in May when Thai troops fired into crowds of demonstrators in Bangkok who were demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon. Between May 17 and 20, at least 52 were killed andseveral hundred injured while more than 200 remain unaccounted for.
The roots of the demonstrations lay in a military coup on February 23, 1991, when a group of generals, including General Suchinda, overthrew a democratically elected government. They formed a National Peace-Keeping Council (npkc) and promised to hold elections in six months. Suchinda himself promised he would not accept the post of prime minister.
The npkc took two actions to restrict labor rights, banning state enterprise unions and requiring Ministry of Interior approval for any labor union "advisers." The npkc also silenced prominent critics, among them Professor Sulak Sivaraksa, who was charged with lese majeste for a speech he gave criticizing the military and the monarchy at Thammasat University on August 22, 1991. A warrant was issued for Prof. Sulak's arrest, and he fled into exile.
By November 1991, the military was rewriting sections of the constitution to give itself a permanent power base. Mass demonstrations took place in Bangkok during November and December 1991 to protest the changes, which allowed the npkc to appoint an upper house of the Parliament, and an unelected prime minister to be designated by the Parliament.
On March 22, 1992, general elections were held with a coalition of five military-backed parties winning 195 seats in the House of Representatives-a clear majority-as compared to 165 seats for the pro-democracy parties. On March 25, Narong Wongwan was nominated as prime minister, but his nomination was withdrawn when the U.S. government announced that Narong had been refused a visa because of alleged involvement in narcotics trafficking. On April 7, Supreme Commander and army chief General Suchinda was appointed prime minister, despite his earlier promise not to accept the post.
On April 8, a former member of Parliament, Chalad Worachat, began a hunger strike demanding Suchinda's resignation. Throughout April, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to echo that demand, and by early May, the demonstrations were even larger. Former Governor of Bangkok Chamlong Srimuang declared that he, too, would go on a hunger strike if Suchinda did not resign. On May 10, the opposition agreed to call off the demonstrations for one week to allow for negotiations.
With no significant progress in the negotiations, demonstrators gathered on May 17 at the Sanam Luang park in Bangkok demanding constitutional changes that would lead to the immediate resignation of Suchinda. By 10:00 p.m., police had turned water cannons on the demonstrators, who responded by throwing rocks and turning over two fire trucks. Police then began beating demonstrators with their nightsticks. By midnight, Suchinda had declared a state of emergency, and military troops, equipped with M-16 rifles, had opened fire. Over the next three days the Thai military and Border Patrol Police fired their guns indiscriminately to clear the streets, killing at least 52, injuring hundreds and arresting over 3,000.
After the intervention of the King and increasing international pressure, Suchinda stepped down on May 24. His lastact was to ensure that an executive decree was issued, providing an amnesty for "all offenders", leading to the release of those arrested during the demonstration but also to impunity for the military officers who used excessive force against demonstrators and, in some cases, deliberately executed them. The much-respected Anand Panyarachun, who had reluctantly accepted appointment as prime minister after the February 1991 coup, was persuaded to return to the post until elections could be held. He proceeded to take a number of steps in support of human rights, including approving in principle Thailand's accession to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; revoking the decree by which the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces had automatic command of the Internal Peace-Keeping Force; transferring key commanders involved in the May events to inactive posts; and setting up an ad-hoc committee to study ways of protecting freedom of the press, including by private ownership of the broadcast media. He also set in motion a number of investigations into the May killings.
On September 11, the independence of the Thai judiciary was called into question when Prime Minister Anand passed a controversial executive decree changing the composition of the Judicial Commission, which is primarily responsible for judicial appointments. Anand sought to reduce the power of Supreme Court Senior Judge Pramarn Chansue over the Commission by dramatically decreasing the number of elected members. The House of Representatives quickly overturned the decree and established an ad hoc committee to reform the judiciary. In the meantime, there are charges that the Judicial Commission, now dominated by Pramarn supporters, has shown a marked favoritism in its judicial appointments, particularly the regional chief justices and the promotion of Pramarn to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court over three more senior judges.
National parliamentary elections were held on September 13, and a fragile civilian coalition was formed under Chuan Leekpai, a member of the Democratic Party. The new parliament revoked the May amnesty decree, but by late November, it was still unclear whether military officers involved in the May violence could legally be prosecuted. The government revived state enterprise unions that had been dissolved after the 1991 coup, but it remained unclear whether they would be granted the right to strike.
The longstanding problem of treatment of Burmese refugees in Thailand persisted in 1992. The number of refugees from Burma's ethnic minorities living in camps along the border climbed to over 70,000. Thousands of Burmans, the country's majority ethnic group, from lowland areas in Burma also fled to Thailand to escape military abuses. (See chapter on Burma.)
Because the Thai government refused to grant refugee status to the Burmese, those who did not end up in the border camps faced deportation or arrest and detention in Immigration Detention Centers (idc) where conditions were generally appalling. The idc in Bangkok, for example, with a capacity of 200, had from 1,200 to over 2,000 "illegal immigrants" detained at a given time, the majority of whom were Burmese. The inmateswere given extremely limited medical care and no access to translators or legal support.
On February 17, the Thai Ministry of Interior announced that all "Burmese students" in Bangkok would have to register and be interviewed to determine their eligibility for transfer to a "safe area" in Ratchaburi province. Those deemed ineligible would face deportation or arrest. In early September, the Interior Ministry acknowledged that 516 Burmese students were "genuine refugees," of the 1,425 who had registered. The 516 were to be transported to the "safe area" on September 21. However, Burmese groups and international human rights organizations raised serious concerns about the screening procedures used to determine refugee status. They also were troubled by the limited role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (unhcr) in monitoring the safety of students in the camp and protecting them against involuntary repatriation and abuse by the Thai military. As a result, the Thai government twice postponed action on the plan, and as of late November only a handful of students had agreed to go to the "safe area" voluntarily.
Thailand's willingness to shelter and trade with the Khmer Rouge (Democratic Kampuchea) has come under particular criticism, particularly as the Khmer Rouge have consistently violated the Paris peace accords and refused to cooperate with U.N. authorities. Until late 1992, the Thai government was refusing to use its leverage with the Khmer Rouge to bring about cooperation, citing the need to maintain evenhandedness with all four factions (see chapter on Cambodia). Thailand also refused to consider U.N.-sponsored sanctions against the Khmer Rouge that would involve sealing off the Thai border to cut their economic lifeline and blocked U.N. convoys and U.N. peace-keeping units from entering Khmer Rouge areas from Thailand. In early November, however, the Thai foreign minister suggested that his government would cooperate if the U.N. decided on sanctions.
Right to Monitor
Human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations are able to work openly in Thailand but know that there can be serious consequences if they go "too far." In June, following the May killings, Dr. Pradit Charoenthaithawee, rector of Mahidol University and chair of a subcommittee of a government commission of inquiry looking into the fate of those missing, was forced to resign from the commission after he received threats against himself and his family for suggesting that the army knew where bodies were buried. People accused of helping or accommodating "illegal Burmese" in Thailand can face imprisonment of up to five years and a 50,000 Baht fine. The threat of criminal sanction serves as a warning to individuals and ngos addressing human rights abuses of Burmese in Thailand.
In the immediate aftermath of the May killings, the Bush administration pulled out combat troops from joint U.S.-Thai military exercises, publicly condemned the violence and loss of life, and met with Thai leaders to urge restraint and a peacefulpolitical solution. But the U.S. government continued some military sales and took no action to hold up World Bank loans to Thailand. Following the September 13 elections, the administration moved to resume economic and military aid, participation in joint combat maneuvers and high-level military visits, despite key outstanding questions about the role of the Thai military in the May shootings.
Following the military coup in February 1991, in accordance with a provision of the fiscal year 1991 foreign aid bill banning most aid to any country where an elected government is overthrown in a military coup, the administration had suspended U.S. economic and military assistance to Thailand until the installation of a freely elected government. However, this cutoff did not affect anti-narcotics assistance ($4 million in fiscal years 1991 and 1992, with the same amount budgeted for 1993), and aid given through private voluntary organizations for certain projects. Nor did it prevent Thailand from using its own funds to purchase American military equipment, such as F-16 fighter planes, radar equipment and small arms, reportedly worth over $900 million since the coup.
The transfer of U.S. arms to Thailand, either through a government-to-government program (Foreign Military Sales, projected at $400 million for fiscal year 1993) or via commercial sales, remained essentially unchanged following the violence in May 1992, although a ban was imposed on small arms and other lethal items that could be used for crowd control. All other transfers were reviewed on a "case-by-case basis," according to the June 23 written testimony of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
On May 19, after three days of violence in Bangkok, the U.S. government withdrew 10,000 combat troops from the joint military exercise with the Thais known as Cobra Gold. However, members of Congress criticized the Administration for allowing non-combat troops to participate. "We think it makes common sense in a time of problems in Bangkok not to have picture of U.S. forces storming the beaches in Thailand," a Pentagon spokesman explained on May 19. A second set of maneuvers scheduled for July was cancelled.
Congress was outspoken in condemning the shootings and demanding an end to the violence and continuing arrests. On May 19, the Senate passed a resolution urging a lifting of the state of emergency and release of all those detained for peaceful activity. The resolution also urged a halt to joint military operations with Thailand and a continued ban on U.S. economic and military assistance until "a duly elected government is installed and human rights are respected." A bipartisan group of members of the House Select Committee on Hunger appealed to the King and Prime Minister Suchinda on May 21 to move swiftly to rescind emergency powers and resume negotiations with the opposition.
At the time of the Bangkok killings, the World Bank was reviewing projects worth $400 million-$178 had already been approved, additional funds were due to be considered in June-with several other loans under preparation. Asia Watch publicly urgedthe U.S. government to lobby the Bank actively for a suspension of these loans, but received no response.
On October 2, following the September elections, the Senate passed a resolution, commending Thailand's interim government for holding elections and investigating the May killings, and urging the new government to complete official inquiries. The Senate expressed support for a resumption of economic assistance, but it made no recommendation on military assistance.
In response to an Asia Watch request that the administration consider holding up some forms of military cooperation or aid until all investigations were completed, James Lilley, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, wrote stating the Pentagon's intention to re-establish "normal relations with the newly constituted military establishment." As of November, discussions were underway between the administration and Congress regarding resumption of military aid.
The administration expressed support for the Thai government's plan to send 516 Burmese students identified by Thailand's Interior Ministry as "genuine refugees" to a "safe area" along the Thai-Burmese border, despite serious concerns about how well those students would be protected from abuse. The State Department said it believed that the site meets "international standards for the protection and welfare of asylum-seekers," noting that a nongovernmental organization affiliated with the unhcr (though not the unhcr itself) will have a permanent presence at the site. As of January 1993, the U.S. government will require that all Burmese students seeking to resettle in the United States must apply from the "safe area."
The Work of Asia Watch
Asia Watch closely monitored events in Thailand in May, issuing statements on May 19 and 21 as the crackdown proceeded, and undertaking a more in-depth investigation in late June, together with Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights (phr). An Asia Watch-phr report was released on October 1 entitled Bloody May: Excessive Use of Lethal Force in Bangkok. The two organizations called in the report for a stepped-up effort to find those missing after the May violence and a revocation of the amnesty decree.
Asia Watch also published a report on March 20, Abuses Against Burmese Refugees in Thailand, calling for better screening procedures to determine who in fact is a refugee with a well-founded fear of persecution. Asia Watch also issued a press release on September 21 to express concern over the imminent transfer of Burmese students to the so-called "safe area."
Asia Watch staff were active during the year in responding to congressional inquiries and providing input for resolutions on Thailand and Burma adopted in the House and Senate.