Human Rights Developments
Thailand's fledgling democracy was seriously threatened in May, as the coalition government headed by Chuan Leekpai was forced to call an election. In March, after two and one-half years in office, Chuan's government became the Thai's longest serving government, only to fall to charges of corruption. The government had been at odds with the powerful military, particularly over the issue of relations with Burma and the treatment of Burmese refugees. But fears that the army might attempt a coup d'etat were not realized, and a new election took place on July 2, bringing into power a coalition led by Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-archa.
Freedom of the press was challenged in August when a newspaper delivery truck was fired on and parcel bombs were sent to the editor and proprietor of a major Thai daily newspaper, Thai Rath (The Thai Nation), after it published articles critical of the annual reshuffling of police posts. The police dismissed the bombs as merely a threat, not intended to harm anyone. In October, Thailand invoked the lèse majesté laws, which forbid any criticism of the king, to deny work visas temporarily to all Australian journalists. The action was taken in response to an unflattering cartoon of the king published in The Age newspaper.
Refugees from Burma increased to 90,000 after an additional 10,000 refugees fled to Thailand following the fall of the Karen National Union's headquarters at Manerplaw in January. From February onwards, the safety of some 50,000 of these refugees was threatened by groups of Burmese government troops (SLORC) and their allies, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), who made frequent incursions into Thailand to force the refugees back to Burma (see Burma section). Although Thailand has not ratified the international convention on the protection of refugees, when the refugees first began to arrive, the Thai government pledged that it would offer sanctuary.
As the attacks on the refugee camps began, the head of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee called for an urgent review of Thai policy toward Burma. He led a delegation of members of parliament to the border to assess for themselves the situation in the refugee camps and called for increased security for the refugees.
On March 16, approximately 8,000 refugees fled from a camp in Ban Huai Manok after thirty DKBA and SLORC troops entered the camp and tried to kidnap the camp leader. One refugee was killed and three others were seriously injured in the attack, which was repelled by Thai soldiers. The refugees moved deeper into Thailand, into an area where the roads made access very difficult for nongovernmental organizations trying to provide aid. The situation continued to deteriorate, and refugees lived in constant fear of attack. Between April 19 and 28, the DKBA entered three different camps and torched 1,172 houses, leaving two refugees dead and more than 6,000 homeless. On May 3, DKBA/SLORC troops entered a Thai village, Ban Mae Ngao in Sob Moei district, in the early hours of the morning and attacked a Thai police checkpoint, also razing the village market and the refugee shelters. Three policemen and one refugee were killed, and two other policemen were injured.
Only after this incident did the Thai army step up its presence in the border area, bringing in troops, tanks and helicopter gunships in a demonstration of strength aimed at preventing further incursions. Just days before, the commander-in-chief of the army, Wimol Wongwanich, was quoted in the Thai press: "If we were not afraid of being criticized by the world community on humanitarian grounds ...then this army chief would take only one week to push [the refugees] all out...I used to do this with over 40,000 Cambodian refugees." The discrepancy between the civilian government's reassurances and the army's actions revealed a sizeable gap in attitude between them.
Once the Thai army intervened, the incursions ceased, though armed men continued to enter camps and harass refugees. The DKBA and SLORC remained in positions on the Burmese bank of the Moei and Salween Rivers (which mark the Thai-Burma border) and the refugees' security remained a concern at the end of the year. In the two weeks between September 23 and October 10, nine refugees were abducted in separate raids. On October 6, the DKBA entered Shoklo camp looking for a KNU officer, and there were clashes which left two Karen refugees dead. By that time, camps in the Mae Sot area had been consolidated, and the Ministry of the Interior had set up an office in the largest camp, Mae La, which housed over 20,000 refugees.
Further north in Mae Sai district, Thai authorities prevented refugees from entering Thailand altogether. The Thai military had kept this part of the border closed for more than a year to prevent supplies from reaching drug warlord Khun Sa. On March 20, more than 1,000 Shan refugees fled heavy fighting in the Burmese border town of Tachilek. They were permitted to stay for only three days, when the Thai military pushed back all but 300 of them. By the end of April, the rest were also forced to return to Burma. As fighting continued in Burma's Shan State, more Shan and Lahu villagers were forced to flee and seek refuge in Thailand, but Thai authorities denied them permission to cross the border. By September, there were more than 2,000 refugees living in makeshift camps on the Burmese side of the border, but nongovernmental organizations were not permitted to provide aid to them.
Thousands more Shan are believed to have entered Thailand seeking work as laborers, joining an estimated 400,000 migrant workers from Burma. During the year they faced increased harassment, arrest and deportation by the Thai authorities, in addition to abuse by their employers. On March 14, the Ministry of the Interior ordered a crackdown on illegal immigrants on grounds of national security. Two months later the crackdown began in earnest, and 1,200 people were arrested in Bangkok in the first three days of May. There were also arrests in Mae Sot and Chiang Mai, until the Chiang Mai Chamber of Commerce protested, worried that buildings for the South East Asian Games, scheduled for December, would not be completed in time without the Burmese laborers.
Following arrest, the workers were held in appalling conditions in detention centers for one month or until they paid their immigration fine of 2,000 Baht (though this was reduced in some areas). In many cases, they suffered abuse while in detention; women and girls were routinely strip-searched. From the detention centers, they were transported to the border in cattle trucks, where most then paid agents who collaborated with Thai police to get them back into Thailand.
The Right to Monitor
Groups working on child prostitution and the trafficking of women were also targeted for close surveillance, and in March Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai attacked these groups for exaggerating the problem and tarnishing Thailand's image abroad. In June, workers at a relief center for HIV/AIDS carriers were harassed by local municipal authorities and the police in order to get them to move away from the area. The center closed after workers received death threats and the center was bombed. No one was injured, and there was no official inquiry into the incident.
The Role of the International Community
In June, more than sixty members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote to President Clinton on U.S. Burma policy, urging him to "secure a commitment from the government of Thailand that they will continue to provide a haven for these refugees [from the attack on Mannerplaw]."
Congress also remained active on the issue of trafficking. In January 1995 the State Department submitted a report, requested by the House in 1994, on trafficking of Burmese women and girls into Thailand. The report said there was no evidence of the systematic involvement of the Thai government, but noted that the sex industry and trafficking networks "flourish through police corruption" and criticized the ineffective enforcement of existing laws against prostitution and trafficking.
In 1995, the U.S. embassy in Bangkok implemented an "action plan" on trafficking, approved in 1994, including educational efforts, support for NGOs, and diplomatic interventions with Thai officials. The embassy planned to distribute a Thai-language version of the Human Rights Watch report, A Modern Form of Slavery.
Congress also scrutinized the Thai military's support for the Khmer Rouge. In February the State Department released a report, required by 1994 legislation, on Thai involvement in cross-border trade and arms shipments. A declassified version noted that official Thai policy prohibits arms transfers to the Khmer Rouge and asserted there was no evidence, since a highly-publicized discovery of an arms cache in December 1993, that the Thai military was supplying the Khmer Rouge with weapons or ammunition. The report acknowledged, however, that some arms transfers still took place through "unofficial contacts, not sanctioned by the Thai government." On the issue of the lucrative cross-border logging and gem trade, as well as shipments of rice, fuel and medicine to the Khmer Rouge, the State Department said the Thai government had begun unspecified "efforts to stop such contacts and trade," but did not evaluate their effectiveness.
Some key senators were far more skeptical of Thai policy. Senator Craig Thomas released a statement in July highlighting eyewitness accounts of cross-border logging shipments published by a credible London-based NGO (Global Witness). He warned that unless the Thai government took significant steps to investigate and stop the timber shipments, he would urge the administration to invoke a law requiring the cutoff of all assistance to any country that is found to be cooperating with Khmer Rouge military operations.
Meanwhile, the U.S. continued a heavy flow of arms sales to the Thai military. Estimated foreign military sales in fiscal year 1995 totaled $120 million, and estimated shipments for fiscal year 1996 were expected to reach $145 million.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Asia
Human Rights Watch/Asia continued to follow developments in the situation of Burmese migrant workers, especially of women trafficked into sex slavery in Thailand and from there to other countries. In September we sent a researcher to Thailand to investigate the treatment of Burmese asylum seekers and UNHCR-registered persons of concern. A report was scheduled for publication early in 1996.