Thailand’s political parties and newly elected members of parliament should make human rights a priority following general elections scheduled for July 3, 2011, Human Rights Watch said. During the election campaign, parties and candidates paid little attention to the country’s deepening human rights crisis, particularly the lack of accountability for the violent confrontations in April and May 2010 that left at least 90 people dead. Other major concerns are the increasing repression of the media, and killings in the south and in the “war on drugs.”
“The violence and abuses since 2010 demand that Thai political parties put forward a strong human rights agenda,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But while speaking broadly about the need for reconciliation, they have failed miserably to present any concrete plans on how to reverse the continuing repression of basic rights.”
Human Rights Watch called on all elected officials, whether in the majority or minority, to tackle the serious human rights problems facing the country. The government, the army, and the various political movements continue to trade accusations about responsibility for the loss of life and destruction of property during the 2010 upheavals, but the government needs to step forward to investigate and prosecute those responsible.
There has been no accountability for serious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said. Human rights defenders have been murdered and “disappeared” without a single successful prosecution of those responsible. Thousands of extrajudicial killings and other serious abuses connected to the government’s anti-drugs and counterinsurgency operations remain unresolved. Government interference with the media has resulted in enforced and self-imposed censorship. People holding dissident opinions, including those on the internet, have been subjected to harsh punishment.
“Holding elections will not make Thailand’s human rights problems go away,” Adams said. “For the country to move forward, Thai political parties will need to present concrete measures to end abuses, stop censorship, and eliminate impunity.”
Lack of Accountability for Politically Motivated Violence
Thailand suffered political violence during 2010 that left at least 90 people dead and more than 2,000 injured and resulted in extensive damage from arson attacks in central Bangkok and several provincial capitals. Research by Human Rights Watch found that a number of factors contributed to these deaths and injuries, including excessive and unnecessary use of lethal force by government security forces, attacks by armed elements within the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the “Red Shirts,” and incitement to violence by some UDD leaders (see Human Rights Watch report “Descent into Chaos“).
Human Rights Watch called on all sides of the political divide to actively support and participate in credible, independent, and impartial inquiries into politically motivated violence and abuses. Holding all those responsible to account is needed to end the vicious cycle of violence and impunity in Thailand.
The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva established the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) to investigate and report on the 2010 political violence. However, the commission was not given all-important subpoena power, which is necessary to obtain evidence and question reluctant witnesses, particularly police officers and soldiers. The commission has been unable to obtain complete information about security force deployment plans and operations, autopsy reports, witness testimony, photos, or video footage from the now disbanded civilian-military Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES). Other official inquiries, such as those conducted by the National Human Rights Commission and the Senate, have made little progress.
While the government has charged many protest leaders and UDD rank-and-file members with serious criminal offenses, very little progress has been made by the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation and the police to prosecute soldiers and government officials implicated in abuses.
There have also been few serious investigations into alleged criminal offenses committed by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), known as the “Yellow Shirts,” during the violent 2008 protests. Cases of senior PAD leaders and members have stalled before reaching trial, as have efforts to seek compensation for damages caused by their protest. At the same time, authorities made little progress to hold legally accountable the politicians identified as responsible for ordering police to use excessive force to disperse the PAD protesters rallying in front of the Parliament on October 7, 2008.
Crackdown on Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression
The Thai government has used vague and overbroad criminal laws to repress media freedom and freedom of expression. Using sweeping powers of the emergency decree proclaimed on April 7, 2010, Thai authorities shut down more than 1,000 websites, a satellite television station, online television channels, publications, and more than 40 community radio stations, most of which were considered closely aligned with the UDD.
Even after the state of emergency was lifted in December 2010, media outlets of the UDD continue to be targeted. On April 26, 2011, armed police officers joined officials from the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to raid 13 community radio stations in Bangkok and surrounding provinces associated with the UDD. The stations were forced off the air in response to a complaint filed by the army that they were broadcasting material deemed offensive to the monarchy.
Thai authorities use the Computer Crimes Act and article 112 of the penal code on lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) to enforce online censorship and persecute dissidents, particularly those connected with the UDD, accusing them of promoting anti-monarchy sentiments and threatening national security. The National Human Rights Commission estimates that there were more than 400 lese majeste cases in 2010, nearly a threefold increase from the 164 cases in the previous year.
Abuses in the Southern Border Provinces
Since January 2004, Thailand’s southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat have been the scene of a brutal internal armed conflict. More than 90 percent of the 4,000 people killed have been civilians, from both the ethnic Thai Buddhist and ethnic Malay Muslim communities. The Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani insurgents in the loose network of National Revolution Front-Coordinate use violence to drive out the Thai Buddhist population, keep Malay Muslims under control, and discredit the Thai authorities.
The government’s counterinsurgency campaign has been characterized by extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture. In some instances, these abuses were reprisals for insurgent attacks on the Thai Buddhist population and security personnel. State agencies at all levels, including the newly created Southern Border Provinces Administration Center, have failed to hold abusive officials accountable. No member of the security forces, either from regular or volunteer units, has been prosecuted for human rights abuses in the southern border provinces.
Thai authorities have also failed to resolve satisfactorily any of the enforced disappearance cases, including the “disappearance” and presumed murder of the prominent Muslim lawyer Somchi Neelapaijit by a group of police officers in March 2004. The Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation, enforced in the southern border provinces since 2005, gives government officials and security personnel effective immunity from prosecution for most acts committed while enforcing the decree.
Abusive “War on Drugs”
Thailand continues to face a boom in the use and trafficking of methamphetamines. For that reason, harsh measures against traffickers are politically popular. During the 2003 “war on drugs” campaign of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government, thousands of people across Thailand were killed and many more were arbitrarily arrested.
The 2007 Independent Committee for the Investigation, Study and Analysis of the Formulation and Implementation of Narcotic Suppression Policy found that the policy formulation and assessment of the “war on drugs” were driven by all-out efforts to achieve the campaign’s political goals rather than respecting human rights and due process of law. The committee recommended further inquiry into the killings of 2,819 people during the “war on drugs.” Prime Minister Abhisit’s government announced support for reopening those cases. But his government then made almost no progress in bringing those responsible to justice, or in ending systematic police brutality and the abuse of power in drug suppression operations.
There are also concerns regarding the policy that subjects drug users to compulsory treatment at facilities run by the military and the Interior Ministry. Each year, 10,000 to 15,000 people are sent to such centers, where drug treatment is based on boot-camp-style physical exercise. Most people sent there experience withdrawal from drugs with little or no medical supervision or medication.