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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Curbed freedoms: hypocrisy at new heights

Thai diplomacy may have gained a new definition: hypocrisy.
Sihasak Phuangketkeow, president of the UN Human Rights Council, delivers a statement at the 15th session of the HRC in Geneva on Sept 13, 2010.
While Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has prided itself on having its representative as the President of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Thailand has continued to violate human rights and curb freedom of expression.
In June this year, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the Thai ambassador to Geneva, was elected unanimously to lead the UNHRC, approximately a month after the Abhisit Vejjajiva government ordered a deadly operation against the red-shirted protesters, which resulted in at least 90 people being killed and more than 1,000 injured.
The chain of events poses the serious question of whether the United Nations really cares about the human rights situation in Thailand and, by extension, in the entire world.
Mr Sihasak must have been working very hard to whitewash his government's controversial policy on human rights. Just a few weeks ago, the Foreign Ministry unashamedly forced the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) to cancel a scheduled press conference on the human rights situation in Vietnam.
The event had been organised in conjunction with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR). Allowing such an event in Thailand would have added credibility to the country and its presidency at the UNHRC.
Yet, for the government, it seemed that there were more benefits to be gained from forcing the cancellation of the press conference, rather than advocating human rights. Local media denounced the Foreign Ministry's decision, calling it a real setback for human rights debate and discussion in the region. Moreover, in holding the UNHRC presidency, Thailand should practice what it preaches, especially at home. Thailand should be more vocal about the human rights situation in Asean in general. This is not to mention that Thailand, a founding member of Asean, earlier offered its strong support for the establishment of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission of Human Rights (AICHR).
Not long after the Democrat Party formed the government, I wrote an article praising its new direction in foreign policy. After years of diplomacy being abused at the hands of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, I naively believed that a Democrat government would bring back its much publicised "principled foreign policy" and reaffirm its affinity of democracy and human rights.
From 1997-2001, the Democrat government kept on lecturing Burma on the need to defend the people's rights. Then-foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan even suggested a new form of diplomacy, "Flexible Engagement", which promoted the Thai right to voice concerns over the happenings in neighbouring countries that could affect Thailand.
But that was a deceptive past. Today, human rights are being abused in Thailand and the government fears that its neighbours would exploit the same logic of flexible engagement to interfere in Thai affairs.
As the part of Thailand exercising preventive diplomacy, the Foreign Ministry refused to upset its Vietnamese counterpart and therefore closed its door to human rights groups.
What made matters worse was the recent arrest of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, an online news editor in Thailand, under the Computer Crimes Act.
Ms Chiranuch was arrested on grounds that she allowed certain materials to be posted on her website -materials perceived by the person who filed the charge with the police as "a danger to national security". It was reported that these materials were written and posted by unknown readers. Ms Chiranuch claimed that she could not stop readers from posting their opinions on the website. But police claimed that she had the right to remove materials once they were posted - which she had obviously failed to do, according to police.
Amnesty International (AI) swiftly launched a campaign to set her free, citing the narrowing space of freedom of expression in the kingdom.
The AI urged people from all walks of life to pressure the Abhisit Vejjajiva government to immediately release Ms Chiranuch and drop all charges against her, to make public the full list of charges against her, and to cease censorship of websites under the 2007 Computer Crimes Act.
The non-governmental group Global Voices Advocacy reported that more than 113,000 websites have been blocked in Thailand.
Under such a situation, how can Mr Sihasak reconcile his duty as chief of the UNHRC?
Certain Thai diplomats have set a new precedent when it comes to practising so-called "principled diplomacy".
In October 2008, Kittiphong Na Ranong, then Thai ambassador to Hanoi, challenged the headquarters' instructions on how to "explain to foreigners" in a way that would play down the "fatal accident" of Oct 7, 2008, when police allegedly used excessive force against PAD protesters.
Mr Kittiphong wrote in his memo to Bangkok: "Explaining something untrue will only discredit the image of the Foreign Ministry. This will cause a long-term negative impact on other responsibilities of Thai diplomats. Trust and credibility is the most important quality of the Foreign Ministry. Without it, our diplomats would face many difficulties in achieving national interests."
Well said, Mr Kittiphong.
Mr Sihasak should follow in the footsteps of Mr Kittiphong and stop presenting a false image of his government's love of human rights and democracy, when in reality, violations of human rights are occurring consistently in his country.
If the record is not set straight, then hypocrisy could end up becoming acceptable vocabulary in the world of Thai diplomacy.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former diplomat, is the author of Reinventing Thailand: Thaksin and his Foreign Policy.

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