Thailand’s military junta came under cross-party attack at the European parliament on Thursday (8 October), with MEPs demanding a return to democratic rule, the release of political detainees, and an end to human rights and labour abuses.
The military regime, which took power in a coup d’etat in May 2014, has come under increasing international pressure over “slave-like” conditions in its key fishing and fruit industries, and the trials of those attempting to expose it – including a British activist, Andy Hall.
Speaking at a special debate in Strasbourg, some 17 parliamentarians, from 14 member states, condemned the junta for its delays in holding fresh elections, its constitutional drafting process, military trials for civilians, clampdowns on public assembly and a free media.
In May last year, a military regime under General Prayuth Chan-ocha ousted elected Prime Pinister Yingluck Shinawatra (the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, premier from 2001-6, and also removed in a coup).
Human rights “in freefall”
Since then, the human rights situation in Thailand has been “in freefall”, according to Human Rights Watch. After long delays in drafting a fresh constitution, the military regime has promised new elections by June 2017.
Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Commissioner Christos Stylianides warned Bangkok that while Thailand was an “ancient and proud nation, loved for its culture, nature and most of all its people”, “bridges are not being built yet”, and that “solving human rights was essential” to future EU-Thailand relations.
Stylianides said that the EU had “stepped up diplomatic monitoring of key [human rights] cases” and on the issue of forced labour in the Thai seafood industry, Brussels was “fully aware, and continued to take it up with the Thai authorities.”
“European buyers are increasingly aware of how [seafood] is produced…and demand transparency and socially-responsible supply chains,” he added.
Seafood, especially tuna, is a key export in Thailand’s economy, but one that has come under increasing scrutiny, with the government handed a ‘yellow card’ by the EU over so-called IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing practices.
Thailand produces 46% of the world’s canned tuna. The EU is the second-largest investor in Thailand, after China, larger than the US and Japan combined.
But Styliandes’ was a relatively moderate contribution, in a half hour debate in which many of the current failings of the Thai regime were heavily criticized by other MEPs.
From “beautiful tourist destination” to “escalation in violence and repression.”
Italian MEP Ignazio Corrao [Movimento 5 Stelle], pointed out that Europeans “tend to imagine [Thailand] as a beautiful tourist destination… but since the military coup, we have seen an escalation in violence and repression.”
“But I think the EU is still in a position to exert pressure on the military junta, so as to push it towards establishing a process of democratisation. We should be using our economic might to do this.”
Polish MEP Ryszard Czarnecki [Prawo i Sprawiedliwo??], mourned the fact that under previous regimes, Thailand was once “one of the East Asian [economic] tigers.
“It must hear very clearly that the EU demands democracy must be reinstated. It is what the country deserves.”
Czarnecki added that European economic cooperation “may have to be hinged on Thailand complying with human rights” – a point enlarged upon by Spanish lawmaker Tania Gonzalez Penas [Podemos], who told the 751-strong parliament that it was “not enough for the European Commission to put a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on hold, it should be suspended”, and that continuing arms exports to the regime were “unacceptable.”
In June, Trade Commissioner Cecila Malmstrom signalled that Europe would not sign a FTA with Bangkok “until a democratically-elected government was in place.”
German MEP Barbara Lochbihler [Greens], cited a figure of some 1,200 arbitrary detentions revealed by the United Nations, with prisoners “kept in isolation on military bases to change their behaviour”, whilst workers on fishing vessels were facing conditions “close to slavery.”
There were just two dissenting voices among Europe’s elected representatives.
Czech lawmaker Stanislav Polcak, [TOP 09 a Starostové], admitted that recent developments in Thailand “cannot be described as positive”, but said there was “light at the end of the tunnel” in the government’s decision earlier this year to abandon martial law.
And Frans Obermayr [Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs], warned Europe should not be “wagging our finger like a schoolteacher” at Thailand.
Several MEPs took up the case of British human rights researcher Andy Hall, facing trial on 19 October after investigating labour abuses in the Thai fruit processing industry.
The UK’s Anneliese Dodds [Labour], said Hall faced a possible seven years in jail for his reporting, called the allegations against him “utterly unfounded” and demanded that “all charges against him be dropped” – a point reiterated by Finish lawmaker Heidi Hautala [Greens], who hailed Hall as a “human rights defender.”
“Noone dares criticise the regime”
Belgian MEP Marc Tarabella [Parti Socialiste] called freedom of speech in Thailand “pie in the sky” following the shutdown of hundreds of websites. “No one dares criticise the regime,” he told parliament.
Speaking to EurActiv.com, Phil Robertson, Human Rights’ Watch’s deputy director for Asia, said: “Thailand has fallen backwards [since the military coup] in a very serious way – even in a lousy neighbourhood for human rights.
“Under Thaksin [Shinawatra –prime minister from 2001-6], it was pretty stable. There were still rights abuses, but things have got much worse. Thaksin brought in the One Tambon One Product [a rural enterprise scheme] and universal healthcare – a number of really significant policies [shifting power] away from Bangkok towards the rural poor.”
“It’s very difficult to put pressure on the military junta ,” he warned. “They are planning to hold on to power for a very long time. At least until the [royal] succession, to [elections in] 2017, and then we’ll see – the timeline keeps slipping. They control all the shots – the constitutional drafting was not really independent at all.
Thailand’s monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is the world’s longest-reigning head of state, but at the age of 87, his crown will at some point have to pass to his son, Prince Vajiralongkorn.
The Thai military sees its role as upholding the monarchy, but critics have accused the regime of using so-called lese majeste laws banning criticism of the royal family as a catch-all to detain opponents.
In the most recent index of corruption compiled by Transparency International, Thailand came 85th out of 175 nations, scoring just 38% on its ant-graft register.
A spokesman for the Mission of Thailand to the EU told EurActiv: “Thailand is disappointed with the overall tone of the resolution. We do not understand why the European Parliament needs to pass this urgent resolution about Thailand now while there are many pressing issues in the world that need the EU’s attention.”
Nigeria’s insurgent Boko Haram and the escalating crisis in Central African Republic were also on the human rights agenda of the European parliament, sitting in Strasbourg.
A non-binding resolution was adopted at the end of the debate by 581 votes to 35, with 35 absentions, declaring: "Parliament expresses its concerns at the "deteriorating human rights situation in Thailand following the illegal coup of May 2014" and urges the Thai authorities to lift repressive restrictions on the right to liberty and the peaceful exercise of other human rights. It calls on the Thai authorities to overturn convictions and sentences, to withdraw charges and to release individuals and media operators who have been sentenced or charged for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression or assembly.Parliament also calls for the abolition of the death penalty and asks the European External Action Service and the EU Delegation to use all available instruments to ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law in Thailand, in particular by continuing to observe investigations and trial hearings of opposition leaders."
- 19 October 2015: new hearing in case of human rights researcher Andy Hall, prosecuted by Natural Fruit Company Ltd over investigations into their labour practices.
- 2016 elections: Now unlikely to take place until at least June 2017, after repeated delays by the military regime to the process of drafting a new constitution.