Junta deserves no time to mull UN pleas

opinion May 17, 2016 01:00

By The Nation

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Thailand risks being condemned as a pariah state In terms of human-rights abuses

The preservation of citizens’ rights is an obligation under international law to which Thailand is a signatory, and yet the government and its supporters tend to downplay it as a matter of diplomatic etiquette. Thailand was among the first countries to endorse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in December 1948. Successive governments have pledged to respect fundamental public freedoms, but have often failed to do so in practice. Now the incumbent military-led regime stands accused of some of the gravest abuses in our modern history.
The United Nations Human Rights Council, meeting in Geneva last week, assessed Thailand’s record as part of its Universal Periodic Review. A Thai delegation was on hand to try and justify the government’s use of legislation in ways that the international community regards as misuse and contradictory to the country’s commitment to upholding rights.
One of UN’s key concerns is the practice of trying civilians in military courts, which are normally tribunals for prosecuting only errant soldiers. To the council’s charge that there is neither reason nor legitimacy to bringing civilians before such a court, a senior military officer in the Thai delegation said only civilians accused of serious offences are thus tried. The offences include 
possession of war-grade firearms, threatening national security, and of course denigrating the monarchy in 
violation of the lese majeste law.
No one should be surprised that the UN council was unmoved by this defence, which misses the point of the complaints altogether. A military court is by definition for military matters best handled internally rather than brought before civilian judges. There is specific expertise in each form of trial. Military adjudicators assess cases with rigid discipline as the framework, under which soldiers, sailors and airmen abdicate most of their basic rights. It is illogical to claim the judges in uniform are equipped with similar knowledge and experience to civilian judges when it comes to rights. 
The military officer testifying in Geneva only undermined his argument when he misinformed the council that 93 per cent of the cases coming before the military courts involve possession or use of “heavy firearms, ammunition or explosive substances that are used in warfare”. In fact, most of the cases have involved citizens expressing opposition to martial rule and the coup that brought the junta to power. The non-governmental organisation Thai Lawyers for Human Rights insists that the only person brought before the military tribunal on a weapons charge was a member of an ethnic minority who used a home-made rifle for hunting.
Among those prosecuted before uniformed judges have been student-activists stirred by the Rajabhakti Park scandal, and opposition politicians and others who ignored summonses for “attitude adjustment”. None of these people owned or wielded weaponry of any kind. 
The UN council was also deeply concerned about the way the junta is deploying the lese majeste law and Computer Crimes Act. The Thai defenders said the former is necessary in protecting the monarchy, but everyone knows it’s been an overused political tool for every government since 2008. This month the mother of a student was charged under both these laws simply for posting a single word of assent to an online message from someone already facing prosecution for lese majeste. This is overkill that cannot be shrugged off.
Delegates of 103 countries in Geneva offered 249 recommendations for Thailand to mend its ways and our government “accepted” 181 of them, while asking for more time to mull the rest through public consultation. These include repealing any junta orders that clash with international rights standards, abolishing the death penalty, an end to “re-education camps” and the prosecution of civilians in military courts, and legal status for refugees and asylum-seekers. 
The government saying it needs time for “further review” was doubtless another diplomatic nicety. In reality it now has more time to continue abusing people’s freedoms. If it has any genuine regard for human rights at all, it doesn’t need time to ponder – it needs to stop its abuses now.