The Thai government’s pledges to the United Nations Human Rights Council to respect human rights and restore democratic rule have been mostly meaningless, Human Rights Watch said today. Thailand appeared before the council for its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva on May 11, 2016. The UPR is a UN examination of the human rights situation in each country.
On February 12, the Thai government submitted a report to the Human Rights Council, saying that it “attaches utmost importance to the promotion and protection of human rights of all groups of people.” However, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta has severely repressed fundamental rights with impunity, tightened military control, and blatantly disregarded its international human rights obligations.
“The Thai government’s responses to the UN review fail to show any real commitment to reversing its abusive rights practices or protecting fundamental freedoms,” said John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. “While numerous countries raised concerns about the human rights situation in Thailand, the Thai delegation said nothing that would dispel their fears of a continuing crisis.”
The NCPO junta, led by Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, has engaged in increasingly repressive policies and practices since taking power in a May 2014 coup, Human Rights Watch said. Central to its rule is section 44 of the 2014 interim constitution, which provides the junta unlimited administrative, legislative, and judiciary powers, and explicitly prevents any oversight or legal accountability of junta actions.
Instead of paving the way for a return to democratic civilian rule as promised in its so-called “road map,” the junta has imposed a political structure that seems designed to prolong the military’s grip on power. A draft constitution, written by a junta-appointed committee, endorses unaccountable military involvement in governance even after a new government takes office.
The government has enforced media censorship, placed surveillance on the Internet and online communications, and aggressively restricted free expression. It has also increased repression against anyone openly critical of the junta’s policies or practices. For example, in April, military authorities detained Watana Muangsook, a former minister, for four days for posting Facebook comments opposing the draft constitution, for which a referendum is scheduled for August 7.
Since the military takeover, the government continues to prosecute those it accuses of being involved in anti-coup activities or supporting the deposed elected government. At least 46 people have been charged with sedition for criticizing military rule and violating the junta’s ban on public assembly. On April 28, eight people were arrested and charged with sedition and computer crimes for creating and posting satirical comments and memes mocking General Prayut on a Facebook parody page.
The government has made frequent use of Thailand’s draconian law against “insulting the monarchy.” The authorities have brought at least 59 lese majeste cases since the May 2014 coup, mostly for online commentary. On December 14, 2015, the junta brought lese majeste charges in military court against a man for spreading sarcastic Facebook images and comments that were deemed to be mocking the king’s pet dog. Military courts have imposed harsh sentences: in August 2015, Pongsak Sriboonpeng received 60 years in prison for his alleged lese majeste Facebook postings (later reduced to 30 years when he pleaded guilty), the longest recorded sentence for lese majeste in Thailand’s history.
Since the coup, the junta has summoned at least 1,340 activists, party supporters and human rights defenders for questioning and “adjusting” their political attitude. Failure to abide by an NCPO summons is a criminal offense subject to trial in military courts. Under junta orders, the military can secretly detain people without charge or trial and interrogate them without access to lawyers or safeguards against mistreatment. The government has summarily dismissed allegations that the military has tortured and ill-treated detainees but has provided no evidence to rebut these claims.
The government has increased its use of military courts, which lack independence and fail to comply with international fair trial standards, to try civilians – mostly targeting political dissidents and alleged lese majeste offenders. Since May 2014, at least 1,629 cases have been brought to military courts across Thailand.
Thailand’s security forces continue to commit serious human rights violations with impunity. No policy makers, commanders, or soldiers have been punished for unlawful killings or other wrongful use of force during the 2010 political confrontations, which left at least 90 dead and more than 2,000 injured. Nor have any security personnel been criminally prosecuted for serious rights abuses related to counterinsurgency operations in the southern Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala provinces, where separatist insurgents have also committed numerous abuses. The government has shown no interest in investigating more than 2,000 extrajudicial killings related to then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s “war on drugs” in 2003.
Thai authorities as well as private companies continue to use defamation lawsuits to retaliate against those who report human rights violations. The authorities have also brought trumped-up criminal charges against human rights lawyers to harass and retaliate against them. For example, on February 9, Bangkok police brought two charges against human rights lawyer Sirikan Charoensiri connected to her representation of pro-democracy activists in June 2015. There has been no progress in attempts to bring to justice perpetrators in the killing of land rights activist Chai Bunthonglek in February 2015, and three other activists affiliated with the Southern Peasants’ Federation of Thailand, who were shot dead in 2010 and 2012.
In November 2015, an international accrediting body recommended downgrading the status of Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission based on concerns about its ineffectiveness, lack of independence, and flawed processes for selecting commissioners.
Thailand signed the Convention against Enforced Disappearance in January 2012 but has not ratified the treaty. The penal code still does not recognize enforced disappearance as a criminal offense. Thai authorities have yet to satisfactorily resolve any of the 64 enforced disappearance cases reported by Human Rights Watch, including the disappearances of prominent Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit in March 2004 and ethnic Karen activist Por Cha Lee Rakchongcharoen, known as “Billy,” in April 2014.
Although Thailand is a party to the Convention against Torture, the government’s failure to enact an enabling law defining torture has been a serious impediment for enforcement of the convention. There is still no specific law in Thailand that provides for compensation in cases of torture.
Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Thai authorities treat asylum seekers as illegal migrants subject to arrest and deportation without a fair process to make their claim. The Thai government has forcibly returned refugees and asylum seekers to countries where they are likely to face persecution, in violation of international law and over protests from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and several foreign governments. These include the deportation of two Chinese activists to China in November 2015 and 109 ethnic Uighurs to China in July 2015.
Thai authorities have regularly prevented boats carrying ethnic Rohingya from Burma from landing, providing rudimentary assistance and supplies and returning them to dangerous seas. In May 2015, raids on a string of camps along the Thailand-Malaysia border found Rohingya had been held in pens and cages, abused, and in some cases killed by traffickers operating with the complicity of local and national officials. Thailand hosted an international meeting to address the thousands of Rohingya stranded at sea. However, unlike Malaysia and Indonesia, Thailand refuses to work with UNHCR to conduct refugee status determination screenings for the Rohingya, and instead holds many in indefinite immigration detention.
The Thai government has stepped up anti-human trafficking measures, Human Rights Watch said. However, migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos remain vulnerable to abuses by traffickers facilitating travel into Thailand, and employers who seize workers documents and hold workers in debt bondage. New temporary ID cards issued by the Thai government to migrants severely restrict their right to movement, making them vulnerable to police extortion. Trafficking of migrants into sex work, bonded labor, or onto Thai fishing boats for months or years remains a pressing concern.
“No one should be fooled by the Thai government’s empty human rights promises,” Fisher said. “UN member countries should firmly press Thailand to accept their recommendations to end the dangerous downward spiral on rights by ending repression, respecting fundamental freedoms, and returning the country to democratic civilian rule.”