Thailand’s human rights record under the military junta was in the dock Wednesday (11 May) at the United Nations Human Rights Council – ahead of a visit next week by EU parliamentarians to the country.
Thailand was due to be grilled on its rights record in a three-hour session in Geneva, with questions on its harsh crackdown on dissent, and criticism of the monarchy, ahead of a planned referendum in August on the military’s proposed new constitution.
The session – due to report its recommendations on Friday (13 May) – poses difficult questions for the regime of General Prayuth Chan-ocha on its use of military courts to try civilians since it seized power in May 2014, and freedom of expression ahead of the referendum campaign.
Those same issues are likely to be on the agenda when MEPs from the European Parliament ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) delegation and from the human rights delegation visit Thailand from May 16-20.
The European Commission has recently renewed it’s “yellow card” on Thai fishing exports over breaches of so-called “Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported” (IUU) fishing – a measure aimed a preserving fish stocks, and one step short of a red card ban on all Thai fish imports to the EU.
Despite a campaign to overhaul the Thai fishing fleet, and its attendant human rights abuses, a visit by EU inspectors in January did not find enough progress to lift the yellow card.
A proposed bilateral Free Trade Agreement between Brussels and Bangkok was also suspended following the coup.
Wednesday’s session at the UN saw questions for the Thai regime from Belgium, Czech Republic, Lichtenstein, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden, Australia, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Mexico, the UK, US and Spain on its human rights record, as part of the UN’s periodic review.
It comes against a backdrop of complaints about Thailand’s human rights in the run-up to the referendum, with activists seized over comments made on Facebook, and the detention of a former minister for opposing the draft constitution.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Wednesday that the junta’s preliminary submission to the UN review “fail to show any real commitment to reversing its abusive rights practices or protecting fundamental freedoms”.
The Geneva director of HRW, John Fisher, added, “While numerous countries raised concerns about the human rights situation in Thailand, the Thai delegation said nothing that would dispel their fears of a continuing crisis.”
Chan-ocha warned last week that criticising the draft constitution could carry a 10-year prison sentence under the Referendum Bill.
Last month, according to Reuters, eight people were arrested and charged with sedition or computer crimes over Facebook posts allegedly criticising the government.
Last week, a Thai journalist, Pravit Rojanaphruk, was barred by the junta from travelling to Helsinki, at the invitation of the Finnish government, for World Press Freedom Day.
On 18 April, the government – which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – arrested Watana Muangsook, a former minister of social development and human security, for publicly opposing the draft constitution.
Dr Werner Langen MEP, chair of the EP ASEAN committee, told EurActiv.com in relation to the arrest that “In my view, a dissenting opinion on a draft constitution cannot be a reason for detention.
“This does not correspond to democratic principles.”
Chan-ocha, who overthrew Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014, has promised a general election in mid-2017 – even if the referendum is rejected.
Speaking ahead of Friday’s UN recommendations, Fisher said, “No one should be fooled by the Thai government’s empty human rights promises. UN member countries should firmly press Thailand to accept their recommendations to end the downward spiral on rights be ending repression, respecting fundamental freedoms and returning the country to democratic civilian rule.”
The Royal Kingdom of Thailand boasts the world’s longest-reigning monarch, 88-year old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been on the throne 70 years this year.
Modern-day Thai politics was forged in the student uprisings of the 1970s, first in 1973 against the anti-communist military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn, a US ally during the Vietnam war.
His return to the country in 1976 saw renewed student protests, culminating in the Thamassat University massacre, an attack no peaceful demonstrators by the military which saw dozens, possibly over 100, killed. Unlike in 1973, when King Bhumibol had backed the students, scholars point the finger at the monarch for this time ordering the crushing of the revolt.
Experts now believe the military intend to stay in power to oversee a royal succession from the elderly and frail King, to his son - a potentially tinderbox situation as most Thais have lived under no other head of state.
Contemporary Thai politics is split between the Shinawatra dynasty, who have been elected to power twice - first billionaire telecomms tycoon Thaksin (2001-2006), then his sister Yingluck (2011-2014), and frequent returns to military rule. Both were overthrown.
Thaksin is now a fugitive based in Dubai and with question marks over his role in the extra-judicial killing of some 2,000 drug dealers during his rule, whilst Yingluck is under a form of house arrest in Bangkok, facing corruption charges over a rice subsidy scheme, which many outside observers believe is politically-motivated.
Shinawatra supporters, largely peasants and the working classes from the north, wear red shirts, in opposition to the yellow shirts, heavily concentrated in the capital, Bangkok, who prefer the military and the monarchy.
- 16-20 May: EU delegation visits Thailand
- 7 August: Referendum on the proposed constitution.
- "Mid-2017" promised election, following the May 2014 military coup.