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Which passeth all understanding

Well that was a right farce last Wednesday in Geneva, eh?  Talk about a dialogue of the deaf.

I am of course referring to Thailand’s starring role in the latest episode in the UPR saga of the UNHRC. 

And for those who don’t follow the arcane acronyms of international human rights (so how the hell did you get to this website?), let me explain that it was Thailand’s turn to sit in the naughty chair and face a barrage of questions and recommendations about how to improve its human rights record.

For years the efforts of the UN to get member states to respect human rights, as set out in conventions which they all had willingly signed and which far too many just as willingly ignored, was mired in accusations of hypocrisy and cultural imperialism.  So after the rebranding of the discredited UN Commission on Human Rights (where the international human rights regime was policed by such luminaries as Zimbabwe and Sudan) into the UN Human Rights Council, the Universal Periodic Review system was installed.

In this system, each member state of the UN has their human rights dirty laundry exposed every 4 years or so in a process of peer pressure.  That’s everybody, from human rights high-flyers like Finland to black holes like, well, the list is so long it would be invidious to risk missing someone out.

Each country has 20 pages to report where they are with respect to human rights.  These generally self-serving screeds are balanced by reports from non-government human rights organizations and the UN itself.  And then any other member state of the UN can bombard the country under review with comments and questions, which will eventually be bundled into a report where the accused can ask for mitigating circumstances to be taken into consideration, yeronner.

Now when a government repeatedly claims that it has never violated human rights, as Messrs Prayut and Prawit do, it must come as a shock when the international community can come up with over a hundred issues of concern.

And none of them include fictitious claims like the ‘500-600 journalists killed’ that Gen Prayut excoriated these ignorant foreigners for believing.  Many of the contributions from other countries quote chapter and verse from the Thai law and the Thai constitution; so much for the claim that ‘they just don’t understand Thailand’.

But hold on, that is exactly what Minister of Justice Gen Paiboon Khumchaya did assert.  The lèse majesté law is not a violation of human rights, neither is the way it is applied, he claims.  It’s just that no one else in the whole wide world has the ‘civilization, sensitivity, and gentleness’ even to have a lèse majesté law, let alone understand why the Thai incarnation is such an article of perfection.

What Christmas tree did he fall off?  The best part of the world doesn’t have a majesté to lèse, so why would they have such a law?  And when everyone and his mother is doing things one way, and you are the odd Charlie out, doesn’t even the faintest glimmer of doubt cross your mind that you may be the one that’s got things wrong?

But I think the root cause of the difficulty is the English language.  Our Dear Prime Minister seems to have learned that variety of English that was left over after the Vietnam War.  Basically a system of grunts and noises for expressing machismo, the usefulness of ‘GI English’ as a means of communication is somewhat limited.

And one of its drawbacks is that it ignores all those messy endings in English that mark tense and number and part of speech – all the stuff that Thai happily does without.  You just try to catch the first bit of a word and guess the rest.  So when Gen Prayut says, as he did recently, ‘Exercising my power must not violate any human rights.  By ‘violate,’ I mean using violence,’ there you have it.

To our Prime Minister, a violation of human rights must involve violence.  Violation, violence: same word really.  No wonder the poor man’s confused.

Add to that his mental muddle between the concepts of law and human rights, and we end up in a simple-minded word where if you break any law and get punished by some mechanism or other, then there cannot possibly be any violation of human rights.

The idea that a law itself (like banning non-official information campaigns over the referendum) may constitute a violation of human rights, or that the process of determining guilt (like prosecuting over a thousand civilians in military courts) may constitute a violation of human rights, or that punishment for a real crime properly adjudicated (like the death penalty) may constitute a violation of human rights–is all alien to his world view.

All this and more came up last Wednesday.  And the Thai government reaction?  Another retreat into the ‘foreigners can’t understand Thailand’ bunker. 

It won’t do.  They understand far too well.


About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).