Yingluck must call a halt to Phuketwan case

opinion April 25, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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The Navy's lawsuit over allegations of trafficking Rohingya is an international embarrassment for Thailand

It’s time our caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, also the Defence Minister, stepped in and ordered the Royal Thai Navy to drop its defamation charges against two Phuket journalists. If she acts now she can prevent this case from dragging Thailand down with it.
The saga began when Phuketwan, an online newspaper, quoted a Pulitzer Prize-winning report by Reuters news agency that alleged the Thai Navy and immigration officials were involved in the trafficking of Rohingya refugees. For repeating the statement, the Navy is suing Phuketwan for defamation, as well as committing a computer crime. If convicted, Phuketwan reporters Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian face two years in prison. 
In a misguided quest to defend its honour, the Navy has damaged the international image of the country, which has come in for ridicule over this case. For that reason alone, Yingluck needs to step in and call the whole thing off.
This is not to say the Navy has no right to defend its reputation. Historically, the Navy has always been the most “gentlemanly” of our armed forces, especially in times of political crisis and coups. 
But it now risks throwing away that hard-won reputation with legal charges that have provoked widespread condemnation from human-rights advocates and other watchdog organisations around the world. 
As a government agency and a branch of the country’s armed forces, the Navy is subject to scrutiny by the media and the public. If it or its personnel are accused of wrongdoing – such as “trafficking refugees” by selling them into slave labour – then it should be prepared for a transparent and independent inquiry.
Since UN agencies and the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand have already raised the issue, perhaps they should carry out the inquiry.
But instead of taking that route, the Navy decided to “shoot the messengers”, intimidating the reporters with charges of defamation and computer crime.
Thai authorities have past experience with this issue. The Navy suffered international condemnation in 2007 for pushing a boatload of Rohingya refugees back out to sea, many of whom reportedly then died. 
When the Reuters story was first published, Yingluck said Thailand would work with the United Nation and the United States on any investigation into possible involvement of Thai officials in the trafficking. The US, UN and international community welcomed that statement. But perhaps Yingluck was just buying time. 
If the premier does not want to be accused of hypocrisy, she needs to step in and put an end to this reckless attempt to curtail media freedom. 
The Rohingya are stateless Muslims who live along the Western border of Myanmar. Until 1982 they were considered citizens of that country. However, communal violence and clashes between Rohingya and ethnic Arakanese Buddhists erupted last year, Nearly 150,000 mostly Rohingya residents were forced to flee their homes. 
Since then, political instability fuelled by an anti-Muslim campaign led by prominent Buddhist figures has forced tens of thousands of Rohingya to flee Myanmar by boat. Many have ended up on the southwest coast of Thailand, usually seen as a holiday paradise. 
If Thailand and the rest of the international community are serious about addressing the root cause of this problem, they must focus on Myanmar’s handling of the Rohingya and bring pressure on Nay Pyi Taw for better treatment of this stateless minority.