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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Thailand's Grim Human Rights Situation

Written by Pavin Chachavalpongpun   
Monday, 27 September 2010
The latest arrest of an editor demonstrates the government's growing threat to freedom of expression

Does the United Nations really care about the human rights situation in Thailand? The brief but painful answer appears to be No. This is because, despite Thailand's appalling human rights records in the past few years, in June the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously elected, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, Thailand's ambassador to Geneva, as its current president.

But it seems that Sihasak is working under heavy duress. Gross violations of human rights in Thailand are embarrassing Sihasak and his fellow Thai diplomats. Some wonder how Thailand could defend human rights elsewhere in the world when the protection of human rights among its own people is a failure.

On Sept. 24, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, an online news editor in Thailand, was arrested under the country's 2007 Computer-related Crimes Act. She has been detained in Khon Kaen police station in Northeastern Thailand. Chiranuch is the Executive Director of Prachatai (Thai People), a Thai online media portal that contains news, opinion, and a forum for discussion about current affairs in the country. Thailand's Immigration Police (Investigation and Suppression Division) arrested Chiranuch at passport control in Suvarnabhumi International Airport as she returned from her overseas trip – to Hungary, where she was attending the "Internet Liberty 2010" conference.

Chiranuch was arrested supposedly on the ground that she had allowed certain materials to be posted on her website – materials that were perceived by the police to be a danger to the so-called national security. It was reported that these materials were written and posted by unknown Prachatai readers. Chiranuch asserted vainly that she could not stop readers from posting to the site. But police claimed that she had the right to remove materials once they were posted. She however refused to do so, according to the police.

It appears likely that Chiranuch will be charged with lèse-majesté, the crime of insulting the monarchy. She is not the first to face the draconian law. Nor will she be the last.

Amnesty International (AI) swiftly launched a campaign to set her free, citing the narrowing space of freedom of expression in Thailand. The human rights NGO urged people from all walks of life to pressure the Abhisit Vejjajiva government to release Chiranuch immediately, make public the full list of charges against her and drop all of them, and to cease censorship of websites under the 2007 Computer-related Crimes Act. Global Voices Advocacy reported that more than 113,000 websites have been blocked in Thailand.

The AI has asked human rights defenders residing outside Thailand to write to Thai embassies and consulates in order to add pressure on the Abhisit government. In addition, Shawn W. Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, issued a statement saying: "We urge Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to release journalist Chiranuch Premchaiporn immediately and unconditionally. The government should stop using anti-crown charges to suppress legitimate criticism."

The Chiranuch case is not the only example that rightly describes the state of Thailand's human rights as increasingly perilous. A few weeks earlier, in a shameful move endorsed by the Thai Foreign Ministry, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) was forced to cancel a scheduled press conference by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) on the human rights situation in Vietnam.

Thailand's The Nation criticised the Foreign Ministry's decision, saying that "The forced cancellation is a real setback for human rights debate and discussion in the region. Thailand is the current chair of the UNHRC, and thus should practice what it preaches, especially at home. Indeed, Thailand should be more vocal about the human rights situation in Asean in general."

This is not to mention that Thailand, a member of Asean, also supported the establishment of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission of Human Rights (AICHR). Yet, the Abhisit government has once again paid endless lip-service to Asean and now to the rest of the world.

The ruling Democrat Party, headed by Prime Minister Abhisit, has boasted its affinity to democracy and human rights. When it formed the government from 1997-2001, it adopted a hard-line foreign policy toward Burma, accusing the leaders in Naypyidaw of violating the rights of their own people. As it turned out, the Democrat Party has gradually transformed itself into something similar to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the governing body of the Burmese junta.

What has driven the Abhisit government to turn monstrous when it comes to human rights issue? At one level, the government's brutal crackdowns against the red-shirted protesters, from March-May 2010, which resulted in more than 90 people being killed and more than 2000 injured, is a testimony of its lack of respect for human rights. At a deeper level, however, the issue is not merely about eliminating its opponents through violent means. It is about protecting its own long-term power interests. In accomplishing this mission, lèse-majesté law has been employed to legitimise the elimination of its enemies.

Sadly, Sihasak will not be able to explain his country's human rights situation in that context – the context in which the Abhisit government, like other despotic regimes of the world, is pretending to adhere to the protection of human rights principle when in fact it is violating it at the same time.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The views expressed here are his own.


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