Slavery in Thailand to be shackled by FTA?

General Prayut Chan-o-cha, pictured in 2014 at a UN summit, is seen as an obstacle to improved democracy. [United Nations/Rick Bajornas]

Thailand’s military government remain in power after rejecting a new constitution. However, a planned trade agreement could persuade it to make more serious inroads against exploitation, illegal fishing and slavery. EURACTIV Germany reports.

When it comes to democracy and human rights, Thailand remains a problem child. After an army-appointed council rejected a draft constitution in early September, the military has stayed in control.

The junta, which came to power last year through a coup, will start the constitutional process from scratch, meaning that parliamentary elections are not likely until 2017. For the time being, a move towards more democracy, freedom and human rights has been postponed.

>>Read: Thailand’s junta rejects its own draft constitution

MEP Werner Langen (CDU) told EURACTIV Germany that, “with the military dictatorship in power, it will remain very difficult to see positive developments, as their leaders have no interest in democratic control”. According to Langen, something has to change in the country, namely, the removal of General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s influence from the process of drafting the new constitution, in order for the new charter to be independent.

The Christian Democrat sees little chance of this happening at the moment. So long as the two opposing parties, the royalist middle class and the poorer rural population, do not find some common ground, the power of the military will be impossible to nullify, he added. “The country is currently too unstable and divided.”

Freedom of expression leads to improved human rights

Observers now fear that the junta will even attempt to consolidate its power. They predict that the military will do all it can to demonstrate that it can bring stability and security to the country. Expectations around the Thai Prime Minister’s visit to the UN summit today (29 September) are therefore low.

Green MEP Barbara Lochbihler told EURACTIV Germany that, “he will likely be well prepared for specific questions on human rights and freedom of speech and will probably argue that Thailand is on the right track.” However, she is convinced that in order for the human rights situation to be improved, freedom of speech must be given more room to breathe.

>>Read: Thailand’s junta mulls ‘Great Firewall’ to control internet

In this regard, the situation is not “on track”. In the last few months, there has been a crackdown on criticism of the royal family. Independent journalists and internet activists accused of defaming the monarchy have been summoned and, in some cases, arrested.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Thailand ranks 130th out of 180 countries in terms of freedom of the press.

Slavery in illegal fishing

The human rights situation in the country remains worrying. The exploitation of Thailand’s immigration population, poor farm workers and, in particular, labourers in the fishing sector from Cambodia, Malaysia and Myanmar, is high on the agenda. Out of approximately 50,000 fishing boats, only 20,000 are registered with the fisheries department, leaving the door open for overfishing and unacceptable working conditions, which are often akin to slavery.

The European Commission has already issued Thailand with a yellow card, and has called upon the authorities to improve the situation by providing more efficient monitoring and controls. Should the visit of an EU-delegation in October fail to see any improvements or observe any more shortcomings, then the country could be issued with a red card.

>>Read: Commission unwilling to let illegal Thai fishing off the hook

Overfishing not the main concern

The EU does have a bargaining chip though. The planned Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Thailand. “So far, the rules pertaining to illegal, undocumented and unregulated fishing (IUU) have been held as an important cause of overfishing in the negotiations,” Lochbihler criticised.

However, this EU regulation does not focus on human rights or slave labour. “These three issues are interwoven,” Lochbihler added. The European Parliament has therefore called for the IUUs and the issue of slave labour to be prioritised in diplomatic and FTA negotiations with Thailand.

There has also been progress in negotiations with Thailand on the part of the German government, partly because the EU intends to conclude more FTAs with other Asian countries. A position paper has indicated that international labour standards will be part of any agreement.

Lochbihler praised this development, but warned the involved parties to follow through, “Of course, it’s difficult to gauge compliance through the supply chain. But this is a situation in which consumers can apply pressure.”

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