Thailand fails to address rights abuse: HRW

Thailand’s government is failing to restore human rights after five years of military dictatorship, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha managed to retain his position after changing the voting system and holding an election that raised numerous questions. He now shows little evidence of changing his approach.

While the March election was described as Thailand’s supposed “return to democracy”, the military-drafted constitution allowed the generals to return to power through a proxy political party. Former general Prayut heads a cabinet made up of almost entirely of the military chiefs who were previously in charge.

“Prime Minister Prayut’s second term is starting with the same blanket disregard for human rights that characterised his first term,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asean representative. “His [40-page] policy statement contains no language whatsoever addressing the serious problems under repressive military rule since the 2014 coup. Whatever hopes that the new government would bring about human rights reforms and advance democratic, civilian rule suffered a serious setback with the failure to include any commitments in the policy statement.”

As the junta chief, Prayut wielded power from 2014-19 unhindered by administrative, legislative or judicial oversight, including for human rights violations. The 2017 constitution protects anyone acting on the junta’s orders from being held accountable violations committed during military rule, HRW added.

The military government prosecuted hundreds of activists, journalists, politicians and dissidents on serious criminal charges like sedition, computer-related crimes and for supposedly insulting the monarchy. The generals retain the power to summon anyone deemed to have criticised the government or the monarchy, question them without a lawyer and force them to promise to end their criticism to be released.

All of the activists violently targeted in recent months were reportedly attacked before they planned to stage protests against the deep flaws in the election process.

HRW said a climate of fear persisted among rights defenders and government critics. Three Thai political activists have disappeared in Laos. Two others have been killed. Three Thai activists returned by Vietnam are also missing.

“Against the backdrop of a recent string of brutal attacks targeting prominent pro-democracy activists and dissidents, the government has yet to develop a credible policy to better protect them,” the New York-based NGO said.

Since January 2004, more than 90 per cent of the 6,800 people killed in Thailand’s southern border provinces have been civilians. Rights violations by Thai forces had greatly exacerbated the situation, the rights group said.

The Thai authorities failed to probe torture allegations and enforced disappearances. Military detention occurred regularly during counterinsurgency operations and personnel responsible for torture and unlawful killings and ethnic-Malay Muslims were not prosecuted. Financial compensation for victims’ families was often given in exchange for an agreement not to speak out or file criminal cases, HRW said.

“Thailand’s foreign friends should not let the recent election become an excuse for ignoring the deteriorating human rights situation,” Adams said. “There should be no rush to return to business as usual without securing serious commitments and corresponding action from the new government to respect human rights.”

Thailand’s military retains its dominant position. Picture credit: Asean Economist