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Interview with Thongchai Winichakul part 1

To anyone interested in Thailand’s recent history and politics Dr. Thongchai Winichakul needs little introduction. A famed academic and historian, now resident in Singapore and the USA, Dr. Thongchai was a student leader during the terrible Thammasat Massacre of 1976 and spent time in prison following those events.

Dr Thongchai Winichakul

I met Dr. Thongchai in late 2011 at a SOAS event in London and then once again in Singapore earlier this year. We discussed at length the failures of Thailand’s human rights NGOs and in particular both Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI). As readers of this blog will know I have previously been critical of both organisations.

More recently other revelations, sourced from the Wikileaks Thai cables, have focused on HRW’s secretive connivance and support of the highly illegal and anti-democratic 2006 Thai Army coup and the resulting military junta government. So far HRW have refused, point blank, to answer any questions regarding their support for the Thai Army’s military takeover and rumours persist that their Bangkok-based staff are closely linked to the neo-fascist pro-coup extremists in the PAD. Furthermore one of their staff members, Sunai Phasuk, met with US Embassy staff on 58 occasions – an astonishing number - over a 5-year period. Is Phasuk employed to conduct intel gathering for the US government rather than to work as someone committed to “human rights”?

Other questions clearly need to be asked about HRW and Phasuk’s closeness to the US mission in Thailand, particularly in light of the USA’s backing of the 2006 junta and its continued support for Thailand’s brutal army - an institution which is implicated in several massacres and almost 20 military coups. Yet, astonishingly HRW, far from examining or explaining their own support for the 2006 coup – something which nearly all analysts state unleashed the present round of instability in Thailand, culminating in the brutal Bangkok Massacre of 2010 – released a report in late-2011 condemning the democratically elected Yingluck Shinawatra government of “back-sliding” on human rights (I will return to this issue at a later date).

With these issues in mind I asked if Dr Thongchai would be willing to conduct an email-based interview. He agreed – this is part one.

How well do you think Amnesty Interntional (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Thailand have dealt with the cases of both political and lese majeste (LM) prisoners?

 I’m going to talk about LM law and its victims only because I am not sure how broad or particular “the cases of political prisoners” you mean here eg are victims of the state’s suppressions in the deep south considered “political prisoners” in your view too? If they are, HRW and AI have done pretty good job on many cases. I don’t know and have not heard if the HRW and AI consider the prisoners related to the anti-government in April-May 2010 “political” or not. (Ironically, it should be noted that now Thai government considers these people “political prisoners” - although the meaning of such term in Thai may be different from the one held by international HR community - I’m not sure HRW or AI have said anything about these people yet.)

For the LM cases, they did poorly. Between 2005-present, for the first 4-5 years they were inactive, silent, and implicitly against the effort to fight the unjust law and to help victims of the law. The bottom-line was, IMO, the HRW and AI got info from, and followed the views of the local Thai human rights (HR) community which is dominated by anti-Thaksin people. They are very biased and lack professionalism or HR principles. They are too politicized and brought their politics to cloud their views and judgments on HR issues. Most of them supported the coup. A few leaders of these Thai HR people even joined the “tours” organized and financed by the coup regime to explain to the world the necessity of the coup. Their political biases blinded them from seeing the victims of the LM as political prisoners or prisoners of conscience because most of these victims are Thaksin supporters or at least were actively anti the coup regime. Many of HR lawyers became active lawyers for the anti-Thaksin (PAD Yellow) camp. Meanwhile, up until today, these human rights activists and lawyers refuse to provide legal assistance to the poor families of Red supporters who were victims of several state suppressions, of LM laws, and who were jailed since the crackdown in mid-2010.  (A few lawyers and activists, mostly from younger generations, broke out from these Thai HR “mandarins” to help the Red supporters.) These “Thaksin-hater” HR people have dominated and influenced the Thai HR community. (These people themselves changed their position in recent years. Unsurprisingly, AI and HRW also changed their positions too around the same time.)

Throughout these years, these Thai HR leaders and in particularly the AI researcher, Benjamin Zawacki, always cited one case of the LM victims that they helped – the case of Sulak Sivaraksa, an anti-Thaksin critic who was charged under the Thaksin government. However, this is just more evidence of bias and not any evidence of their professionalism or adherence to HR principles.   In more recent times Sulak’s case needs to be compared to a case AI often cited as the reason why they cannot support other victims of LM – that of “Da Torpedo”.  Zawacki argues in public and in private conversations, that Da Torpedo committed hate speech, thus disqualifying her from being a prisoner of conscience or political prisoner. In my opinion, this reasoning on such a “technical ground” is pathetic, thoughtless and cruel. Many political prisoners and prisoners of conscience are involved in armed struggles against their governments and have given much harsher speeches. Nonetheless, even if we put aside the Da Torpedo case, around the same time there are many other victims who were not involved in any hate speech at all. Yet AI (and HRW) were also silent on these victims and never provided a good reason for their silence.

Part-two of this interview will follow  in the next few days.


Andrew Spooner can be followed on Twitter here and on Facebook here.


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