Rajapaksa arrives in Thailand; critics question refugee policy.

Giving Sri Lanka’s former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa temporary permission to stay in Thailand could lead to pressures from civil society to prosecute him for war crimes and to questions about how the Thai government has treated refugees who are much more in need of help, such as Rohingyas, Uyghurs and ethnic minorities crossing the Myanmar border, according to a former National Human Rights Commissioner.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his wife arrived in Bangkok at Don Muang airport at 20.00 local time on Thursday 11 August. They were seen leaving a VIP building and entering a car to leave the airport, according to The Reporters. On social media, Thai netizens criticized the government for having a soft spot for authoritarian leaders. 

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had said that Rajapaksa would arrive on 11 Aug after requesting a temporary stay while seeking long-term asylum in another country. Insisting that Rajapaksa would not seek permanent asylum in Thailand, he also bluntly asked Thailand not to become confused like Sri Lanka, claiming that there is now already enough confusion.

Don Pramudwinai, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, called the visit “normal” and describe it as “escaping the heat for the cool”. He said Rajapaksa was given permission for a 90-day stay and believed that he would not cause trouble to Thailand although his stay might dissatisfy Sri Lankans. 

Implying that the Thai government would not provide accommodation for Rajapaksa, Don said he can stay anywhere that is available for rent including an apartment or a guest house. The current Sri Lankan government also had no objection to Rajapaksa’s entry. Don said he understood that the Sri Lankan government still remains under Rajapaksa’s influence. 

Tanee Sangrat, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the current Sri Lankan government had requested Thailand to allow its former president a temporary stay and confirmed again that he would not seek political asylum here. Rajapaksa holds a diplomatic passport, meaning that he can stay for 90 days without a visa. 

Rajapaksa fled to Singapore on 14 July before arriving in Thailand. It was reported that his Singapore visa was due to expire on Thursday 11 August. A close associate of Rajapaksa said that he “had applied for an extension, but it had not come through as of Wednesday morning.” His visit to Thailand makes it the second Southeast Asian nation to receive the first Sri Lankan president to quit mid-term. 

Rajapaksa submitted a letter of resignation from Singapore after months-long mass protests over Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis in the 7 decades since independence in 1948. In July, thousands of protesters occupied the president’s official residence and office for days, confronting crowd control police as the country defaulted on its debts and its 21 million population suffered acute shortages of food, fuel, and medicine.  

In July, Pheu Thai MP Tossaporn Srirak faced a criminal complaint of sedition from a pro-government activist after posting on Facebook “Do you want it like the UK or Sri Lanka?” warning that if Gen Prayut is not forced resign like the former, Thailand would fall into a political and economic crisis like the latter. Sonthiya Sawasdee, who filed the complaint, said that the post could be read as a call for unlawful insurrection. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s brother and the country’s former prime minister, announced his resignation in May and sought refuge at a naval base in the country’s southern town of Trincomalee. The protesters followed him there. Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss, a politician from a party with a single seat in the Indian parliament, warned the Indian government against giving him asylum because of his record on war crimes. 

During the final months of Sri Lanka civil war, during which Mahinda was President and Gotabaya was Secretary of Defence, more than 40,000 civilians were killed. While the Tamil Tigers contributed to that number, the Sri Lanka authorities were accused by the UN of committing “sexual and gender-based violence,” “enforced disappearances” and “torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” 

Prepare for pressure

Professor Chaiwat Kamchoo, an international relations scholar, said that had Rajapaksa remained President he would have enjoyed diplomatic immunity under international law. That may no longer be the case, but he has not been indicted by any government. So the Thai government could not do anything to prevent him from entering the country. 

“He is not a criminal, so nothing can be done,“ said Chaiwat. 

However, letting him enter Thailand could anger a large section of Sri Lankan population. In a concern shared by Foreign Minister Don, Chaiwat said that the Thai government should be careful not to openly welcome Rajapaksa and should make it clear that Thailand does not have any connection with him.  

“If he enters Thailand, he can do so as an ordinary tourist,“ said Chaiwat. 

Thailand seems to be following the example of the Singaporean government which said earlier this month that it did not give Rajapaksa any privileges or immunity. An Aljazeera report also said that he had made no public appearances or comments since leaving Sri Lanka. However, Thailand could face the same pressure as the Singaporean government. 

International Truth and Justice Project, a group documenting on human rights violations in Sri Lanka, filed a criminal complaint with Singapore’s Attorney-General over Rajapaksa’s war crimes, claiming the principle of universal jurisdiction. British MP and the leader of the Liberal Democrats Sir Ed Davey has also called in the House of Commons for an international arrest warrant against Rajapaksa. 

Angkhana Neelapaijit, a former National Human Rights Commissioner, posted on Facebook that allowing Rajapaksa to stay in Thailand can lead to pressures from “both domestic and international civil society organizations” that want him prosecuted on numerous counts of human rights violations. 

Angkhana highlighted “particularly the cases of enforced disappearance” among other human rights violations committed by Rajapaksa. Thai rights groups have been campaigning for years against enforced disappearances, including the case of Angkhana’s husband Somchai Neelapaijit, red shirt leader Surachai Danwattananusorn, and political activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit. Despite these efforts, the Prevention of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Bill was recently watered down by the unelected Senate.

Question of standards

Angkhana also raised another concern: letting Rajapaksa stay in Thailand may lead to questions about the government’s treatment of refugees, some of whom are in much more need of support. Attached to her FB post were reports of Thailand deporting three Cambodian opposition politicians in one month in 2021 and in the same year forcing 600 refugees from Myanmar back to an uncertain fate as gun shots were still being heard across the border. 

Not only did Thailand expel Rohingyas back to sea in 2009, but state officials were also involved in trafficking them to the Thai fishing industry and to neighbouring countries. Thailand was degraded to Tier 3 by the US government in 2014 and only returned to Tier 2 last year. After combatting human trafficking with some success, Pol Maj Paween Pongsirin had to flee Thailand for exposing high-ranking military officials involved. 

According to a VOA report in June, “Thailand is believed to be holding more than 50 Uyghurs in immigration detention centres across the country, most of them since at least 2014.” In July 2015, “Thailand deported 173 of the Uyghurs, mostly women and children, to Turkey.” But “a week later it deported another 109, mostly men, back to China, setting off a wave of condemnation at home and abroad.”

While Thailand accepted Rajapaksa, it was also allegedly involved in the handover to the Sri Lanka government in 2009 of a Tamil rebel leader and three other members after serving jail terms for arm smuggling. Selvarasa Pathmanathan participated in war crimes similar to those of the Rajapaksa brothers as the two sides fought a decades-long civil war resulting in tens of thousands of civilian deaths.

Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence said that Pathmanathan was arrested in Bangkok, but the Thai police denied the claim. Government aide Panitan Wattanayagorn said he had been in and out of Thailand several times as he had a wife in the northern part of the country. But he was not arrested in Thailand. It was merely that the airplane carrying him had to pass through an airport in Bangkok before arriving in Sri Lanka. 

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