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Interview with Thongchai Winichakul Part 2

This is part two of my recent interview with leading Thai historian and academic, the former student leader, Dr. Thongchai Winichakul. Part one can be found here.

In the first part of the interview Dr. Thongchai speaks of the failure of major human rights’ organisations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) to take a principled stand on issues such as the 2006 military coup and Thailand’s notoriously draconian lese majeste law because they had become politicized and had adopted an anti-Thaksin position. This led to the abandonment of political prisoners such as Da Torpedo - something that Amnesty International appeared to do so while colluding with the then Abhisit Vejjajiva-led government. Dr. Thongchai also contended that the abandonment of the likes of Da Torpedo by the major human rights’ organisations was “pathetic, thoughtless and cruel.”

Dr Thongchai's words below are the continuation of his response to the question - "How well do you think Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Thailand have dealt with the cases of both political and lese majeste (LM) prisoners?"

Keep in mind that around the same time [as lese majeste (LM) cases were increasing], the Thai human rights (HR) community, including Zawacki [Amnesty’s Thai-based researcher], sang the praise of the Thai King as a champion of Human Rights. Given the horrible HR violations by Thaksin government in the anti-drug campaign and the conflicts in the deep south, these Thai HR people only saw things in black and white, i.e. Thaksin’s opponents are good guys, the coup and the king’s intervention were good things to happen. They failed to stand firmly on the HR principles regardless of who committed those violations of HR or what governments use the LM law to silence their critics and suppress their opponents. 

AI and HRW listened to their own bureaucrats without listening to criticism and comments that they should be aware of the problems within Thai HR community. They don’t care these “outsiders”. [In one conversation with a HRW person at the New York office, the person sarcastically wondered if I was a Thaksin supporter. A similar reaction also came from AI in London and from Thai HR activists to other critics of them.] AI and HRW, in my opinion, have become bureaucratized, thus unable listen to the voices that are different from their own bureaucrats. Given criticism on their bureaucrats, they protect their people like any mandarin would do. After years of complaints, they have not yet opened up any investigation into their mistakes. Instead, in recent years, especially AI, have gradually slid into a better position that LM is a problem and victims are prisoner of conscience. They do this without admitting any mistake but instead claiming that this is the position they have held all along – which is not true.

Another reason for their mistake is, in my opinion, that Thailand is not very important for them to care or spend much time on. One of the major arguments why they did not care the victims of the suppression in Thailand in 2009-2010 is that those Red victims were violent and had weapons. Meanwhile HRW and AI support the popular uprisings in the Arab world. They are correct for the latter, but they don’t even care regarding the flaws of their reasoning for their silence and absence of support to victims in Thailand’s case. Thailand is too small for them to acknowledge their mistake. They simply move into a new position without anybody’s attention. Mistakes are quietly swept under the rug like a capable bureaucracy would do.

One of the reasons AI and HRW have gradually changed their position re: the LM issues is because the situation in Thailand has changed and the views of international community have changed too. The latter may be more important to AI and HRW. It now becomes so obvious and undeniable that LM law is a serious violation of HR and victims, regardless of their political colors, should be judged by HR principles and not by their political colors.

If there have been failures what do you think these two pre-eminent HR NGOs could have done differently?

They should listen to other voices who are fighting for HR not just their own bureaucrats. Stop belittling these different voices from the same side. If they could have a mechanism to hold their own country researchers, like Mr Zawacki, accountable, it would be great. I do not know if AI and HRW have a good enough bureaucracy to accept transparency and accountability or not.  I do not know how to change the behavior of those “mandarins” in London and New York. That is beyond my ability to understand how they work. It is not my problem for not understanding it but it is their task to make sure to not allow this mistake to happen again. Ultimately, I think both HRW and AI and all their bureaucrats should stand firmly on human rights principles. I hope this is not too much to ask for.

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