US President Barack Obama should publicly raise concerns about Thailand's human rights record during meetings with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Bangkok today.
The Thai government needs to address a long list of human rights problems, including lack of accountability for security force abuses, restrictions on free expression, and failing to protect the rights of Thailand’s large population of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrant workers.
President Obama doesn’t need to tread lightly in discussing Thailand’s rights record. An important benefit of having a close diplomatic ties is that Obama can be frank and forthright in raising concerns.
Obama should take up concerns about abuses by the military and police in Thailand’s southern border provinces, where the government is fighting a separatist insurgency that has been responsible for numerous bombings and killings. Thai security personnel have been implicated in extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances. While abuses have declined since Yingluck took office in August 2011, no security personnel have been prosecuted for past or recent human rights abuses.
Ensuring accountability is not only a matter of justice for victims of abuses, but evidence that the Thai government is committed to becoming a rights-respecting democracy.
The right to freedom of expression, including on the Internet, has become an increasing concern in recent years. Authorities continue to bring prosecutions against individuals deemed to be critical of the Thai monarchy under the lese majeste laws, as well as against activists, journalists, and academics critical of the government. Prosecutions for criminal defamation are often initiated by private individuals, including government officials.
Attempts by Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party and its coalition partners to pass an amnesty law for those responsible for violence during the 2010 political upheaval is an affront to justice. At least 90 people died and more than 2,000 were injured in political confrontations in Bangkok and other cities from March to May 2010. Our 2011 report “Descent into Chaos” concludes that both anti-government “red shirts,” particularly their armed “black shirt” wing, and state security forces were responsible for the violence, though the latter was responsible for the majority of casualties. The Thai government should prosecute all those responsible, regardless of political affiliation or position.
Obama should also discuss the rights of migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers. Thailand’s decision to join the US-supported negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement, which will be announced during the visit, will put pressure on Thailand to improve its labour rights record, which is marred by pervasive abuses against more than two million migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos, many of whom produce goods for export to the US.
In September, the US Labour Department listed Thailand’s fishing, shrimp, and garment sectors as continuing to use child and forced labour, and noted the use of child labour in sugarcane production. For the past three years, the US State Department has given Thailand a poor grade on human trafficking.
Obama should also press Thailand to protect refugees and asylum seekers, including Burmese fleeing persecution or war, and not engage in deportations without adequate safeguards and processing.