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Thailand's human-rights record shameful

Today is Human Rights Day, both in Thailand and internationally.

Published on December 10, 2007

It must be declared at the outset that this country is no longer among those that respect human rights. This year's human-rights record is shameful given the high expectations that matters would improve after the coup in September last year. As it turned out, the time since then has been a huge letdown.

The Internal Security Bill alone could swiftly transform Thailand into a police state. State surveillance and sanctions on the public's right to know in the cyber world have proliferated and of late reached manic levels. Refugees from neighbouring countries, especially the Hmong and Karen, have suffered the most from the discriminatory policies of this government. Nationalism, fuelled by conservative and right-wing elements, could further drive a wedge in Thai society, which could easily lead to human-rights abuses.

Many issues remain unresolved and human-rights violations continue unabated. The government of Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has been tarnished by its failure to prevent further enforced disappearances, especially in the three southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani.

Many hoped that the reopening of the investigation into the disappearance of Somchai Neelaphaijit after the coup would yield tangible results. Immediately after Surayud took over the premiership, he said his government would come clean on Somchai's case and others related to human rights. Former Army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, now deputy prime minister, went further by saying it was the work of the police.

As time passed, hopes quickly dissipated, raising serious issues regarding the personalities and leadership integrity of Surayud and Sonthi. Even the appointment of national police chief Seripisut Temiyavej, who has a reasonably good record, did not help. Police insiders believe that Somchai's case was too specific and sensitive. Naming and shaming the culprits would open a Pandora's box regarding judicial administration and the rule of law. Seripisut's priority was to reform the police force and make it more professional. He was willing to spare the rotten branches in order to protect the forest.

The Somchai case remains a high-profile one regardless. As long as it remains unresolved, questions will be raised about his fate and that of several thousand more with less familiar names - as with the disappearance of Thai labour leader Tanong Pho-arn in 1991. Thai people might be forgetful, but the international community is not.

Thailand has one of the worst human-rights records in the global context when it comes to accountability and clarification. Since the establishment of the UN human-rights mechanism, 51,531 cases were reported to the UN and only 2,791 have been settled, none of them from Thailand.

Since 1991, Thailand has had 36 cases of human-rights violations pending, and they have remained unchanged over the past 16 years. A total of 31 people were officially declared missing following the Black May bloodshed in 1992. Unofficial numbers reported by relatives put the number at several hundred. The Thai government has yet to provide much needed clarification.

To be fair, other Asian countries such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka and, of late, Nepal have had far more human-rights abuses and disappearances reported to the UN than Thailand. But they have been more forthcoming in follow-up clarifications and investigations of missing persons. At the latest session of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in Geneva last month, the group praised countries such as Yemen for being cooperative in this regard. The Philippines and Sri Lanka have both also made progress.

However, the same working group warned the Thai government that everyone involved in the investigation of disappearances must be protected. Of late, several human-rights defenders have been killed or disappeared. Both local and international civil groups have reported these cases. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has also raised the alarm on this issue several times, but to no avail.

Apart from serving as a beacon of human rights, the NHRC's overall performance over the past six years has been disappointing. Its failure to produce an annual report shows the commission's inability to articulate positions on human rights.

It could have had more of an impact if it chose to focus on civil and political rights rather than collective rights, which eventually turn out to be too large a task to handle.

Worse, the NHRC's future prospects are now in doubt due to the new selection process mandated by the new Constitution. Current NHRC members were selected independently from more than 200 applicants. The next team will be handpicked by former top judges and bureaucrats. Obviously, the new commission's members are likely to be officials who deem state security to be more important than human security and human rights.

The inability of Thai authorities to provide follow-up clarifications on past and recent disappearances is a national disgrace. It effectively points to a deeply ingrained culture of impunity among uniformed and ordinary officials in the Thai bureaucratic system to protect one another.

They know that once victims are labelled "disappeared", their cases are closed. Indeed, no disappearance has been satisfactorily explained apart from the case a couple of years ago of a missing Burmese refugee.

Hopefully, after the election later this month, a more sensible government will be installed that will move quickly to correct our dismal human-rights record.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

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