A majority of Thais endure tough working conditions. Source: Wikimedia
As Thailand prepares to crown a new king, there are few signs that the upheaval will bring democratic reform.
Instead human rights, freedom of speech and democracy, always based on relatively feeble foundations in Thailand, are consigned to memory.
The Bangkok Post reported last month that around “100 web addresses” on YouTube had been blocked for insulting the monarchy in a “joint blocking effort” with Google, according to Bangkok’s junta.
The military government uses the monarchy as a convenient excuse to gag dissenters, rather like respect for Islam is used as a sanction in many Muslim countries.
While the prosecution of political activists gains media coverage, often because the victims come from a privileged, urban minority, the appalling treatment of impoverished migrant workers has often gone under the radar.
Now British human-rights activist Andy Hall has fled Thailand, saying he feared for his safety amid legal problems and harassment from an “irrational, vindictive and aggressive” business elite.
Hall, who campaigned for migrant worker rights in Thailand for 11 years, was facing defamation action from firms he has accused of labour violations.
“The situation is not good right now,” he told Reuters. “It’s rapidly deteriorating. It doesn’t feel safe. There are people who are intent on wearing me down. I’ve worked with so many companies in Thailand, and it’s rare to have a company that is so irrational and so vindictive. It’s enough to wear anyone down.”
In September, Hall was handed a suspended three-year jail term and fined 150,000 baht (US$4,300) for “criminally defaming” the Natural Fruit Company, a pineapple producer that exports to the EU. Then the owner of a chicken farm who lost his EU contracts and had to close his 1.6 million-bird business after Hall exposed employment violations on one of his three farms, said he planned to pursue his own suit and was hiring Natural Fruit’s legal team.
The chicken workers sued the owner with Hall’s support in September over alleged forced overtime, unlawful pay cuts, seizure of their passports and restricted freedom of movement. They demanded US$1.3 million in compensation.
Thailand employs around 3 million migrant workers, mostly from Myanmar along with many Cambodians and Laotians. Since Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in Nay Pyi Taw she has tried to persuade migrant workers to bring their expertise back to a newly democratic Myanmar.
Hall carried out research for Helsinki-based Finnwatch for a 2013 study called “Cheap has a high price” about Natural Fruit, which then sued Hall.
“It’s time for the good companies, the good actors, to speak to these people. I work with a lot of good companies … I fear for my safety because of the unstable situation,” Hall said.
Harsh treatment of foreign professionals, who have largely operated in a privileged bubble, is a sign of how Thai human rights have been eroded.
“My work is not productive at the moment. It’s like walking on broken glass. I don’t feel secure to be working here. Why would you want to put yourself in this situation where you’re just being worn down and stuck in the court system?”
Hall has his passport confiscated by two different courts and had to get legal permission to leave the kingdom.
“You’re at the whim of this corrupt, mafia system, and you can’t get out of it … I’ve done everything I’m legally obliged to do, and now is the time to step away and see if this will get better.”
He is expecting the chicken farm owner’s charges to bring fresh travel restrictions.
“The reason I’m leaving is they said in court they’re going to file a new criminal case against me, because it comes with all the restrictions. I’m not willing to be subjected to that criminal process again, and I’m also leaving because of the security issues.”
It is no wonder that Bangkok’s leaders are shunning their traditional allies in Washington and looking to China for support, which is always happy to ignore a nation’s human-rights abuses.
Beijing’s railway diplomacy and growing military cooperation with Bangkok is a clear sign that Barack Obama’s attempt to reorientate Washington’s focus to the Asia-Pacific region has failed.
The US no longer appears to enjoy significant diplomatic influence in Thailand.
Thai internet service providers are now encouraging citizens to report “inappropriate comments” online, particularly on Facebook, Line and YouTube.
The telecoms regulator the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) has produced leaflets calling for people to “collaborate to suppress inappropriate messages”. It gives instructions on how to report messages using each platform’s tools and then contact the NBTC. It joins the police’s Technology Crime Suppression Division that tracks down online content contradicting the monolithic requirements of the junta.
In August the mother of a prominent activist was charged under lese majeste, the world’s strictest laws protecting a monarchy from criticism, for replying “ja” or “I see” to a Facebook message that allegedly criticised the monarchy.
The cruel clowns who grabbed power in May 2014 clearly have no intention of relaxing their grip.
Respect for the monarchy is merely an excuse to silence any criticism and the royals, portrayed as central to Thai culture, are merely a fig leaf for military dominance.
The future looks bleak indeed.