The junta prefers to remain in denial about the mounting testimony regarding its abuses
Thailand has appeared on a United Nations list of 38 “shameful” countries – along with China, Russia and Myanmar – for carrying out “reprisals or intimidation” against rights advocates. The means cited range from murder and torture to arbitrary arrest, surveillance and campaigns to “criminalise” or publicly stigmatise the targeted individuals.
The ninth annual report from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres details on a country-by-country basis the retaliatory actions taken against rights defenders. When the focus shifts to Thailand, we read about the intimidation tactics used against the ethnic Lahu rights activist Maitree Chamroensuksakul, who was subjected to harassment and death threats after he met Michel Frost, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in May last year. There are also details about the challenges facing rights defenders who work in the Muslim-majority southern border provinces, where the Malay insurgency has claimed 7,000 lives since January 2004.
And Sirikan Charoensiri is here – a member of the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights who was harassed while representing the family of Chaiyaphum Pasae. Chaiyaphum, 17 and also Lahu, was the youth activist shot dead by soldiers in Chiang Mai in March 2017. The Army and police said he was a dope dealer wielding a grenade. Witnesses called it extra-judicial murder. Sirikan is no stranger to harassment under the National Council for Peace and Order, the ruling junta. In 2016, upon returning from a UN Human Rights Council meeting overseas, she was charged with sedition.
“The world owes it to those brave people standing up for human rights, who have responded to requests to provide information to and engage with the United Nations, to ensure their right to participate is respected,” Guterres says in the damning report. “Punishing individuals for cooperating with the United Nations is a shameful practice that everyone must do more to stamp out.”
Morally, to be sure, it is indeed shameful that Thailand is included on this list. The generals and the Foreign Ministry, though, regard the report itself as “shameful”. But the government spokesman’s attempt to spin the criticism as an “our word-versus-theirs” situation was pathetic, as was his claim that some people were using the report to tarnish Thailand’s international image. We give credence to the UN, not the government. There has been ample testimony in this country of abuse at official hands, particularly in – but certainly not exclusive to – the far South. There have been credible reports from the border provinces of human rights violations and even extra-judicial killings. Appallingly, every government since 2004 has denied the truth, and the junta government is doing precisely that now.
We have seen government agencies threaten legal action against rights defenders and otherwise harassing political activists. In the South it is not uncommon for a citizen thus targeted to open his front door and find scores of troops sitting in armoured vehicles – not to attack or arrest but to frighten and deter. Another tactic involves the so-called Information Operation (IO), in which activists who question official policy become the victims of smear campaigns.
Such methods serve only to widen the trust gap between the people and the government. Policymakers, usually far removed from such unsavoury practices, should be asking those at the operational level whether they’ve gained any ground at all. They will learn that the battle for hearts and minds is being lost, not won.