Thailand’s lese majeste prisoners – “Amnesty & Human Rights Watch are ignoring us” Part II
This is part two of my look at human rights groups, lese majeste and political prisoners in Thailand. Part one can be found here.
Despite the context of coup threats and the dual state within which the present government Pheu Thai government is working, many are also criticising them for “back-sliding” on human rights after a number of Pheu Thai government figures said they would widen the crackdown on lese majeste. In addition a Human Rights Watch report released earlier in 2012 attacked the government for failing to address the use of lese majeste and for extending this draconian law’s reach. Pheu Thai's failure to amend or reform else majeste has also been a huge disappointment to many, yet even Nittirat's reforms don't call for the abolition of lese majeste and nor would their reforms end prison sentences for breaches of lese majeste. Furthermore there is little evidence that Pheu Thai's threats have actually transformed into the kind of ramping up of the numbers of lese majeste prosecutions that was witnessed during the Democrat Party regime. So why would HRW produce a report that seemingly contains inaccuracies in to order to attack and undermine a "Thaksinite" government? Could it be that HRW are actually politicised, taking a secret and undeclared "anti-Thaksin position" even if that means supporting coups that overthrow democratically elected governments?
Comments attributed to HRW’s lead Thai-researcher Sunai Phasuk found in the wikileaks US Embassy cables clearly point towards this kind of undeclared politicisation - comments which both HRW and Sunai have failed to explain, clarify or answer for, despite requests stretching back to mid-2011 for them to do so.
Sunai has a number of statements attributed to him that make clear his support for the 2006 military coup that removed a democratically elected government, that he is a “committed anti-Thaksin activist” and that he believes a significant element of the Red Shirts were “bent on using violence to topple the monarchy”, a claim for which he offers no independent and corroborating evidence. Sunai is also cited just after the 2006 coup saying how “close” he is to Thai Army officers and that he “had always held the military in high regard for their sense of honor and dedication to the country.” Given that only two years previously the Thai Army had been video taped engaging in an appalling massacre in Tak Bai that left 87 dead, this is an astonishing statement for a human rights worker to be making.
On the issue of lese majeste Sunai is reported as saying in another cable that HRW wouldn’t support a Thai trade union activist being harassed with the lese majeste laws as the case was “unattractive” and “that association with the case would damage his ability to work as a human rights defender”. The trade unionist concerned, Jittra Kotchadet, told me that she “wasn’t surprised” by HRW’s inaction as they “haven’t really done anything to support people in Thailand.” She also said that “HRW don’t act according to principle and seem to take sides in the political conflict. And for some reason they keep trying to link the Black Shirts to the Red Shirts [the armed element from the April/May 2010 protests that supposedly had links to the Red Shirts. The claims that links existed were recently undermined by a Bangkok Post journalist Wassana Nanuam who counter-claimed that, in fact, the Black Shirts were more likely a rogue element in the Thai Army]. Where is their evidence that they are connected? Not even the Thai state could produce any and no one has yet been arrested from this “element”. So why do HRW keep repeating this story?”
Prominent and highly respected Thai human rights activist, Kwanravee Wangudom, who spoke last year at the House of Lords about the deaths of unarmed protesters during the Abhisit regime’s brutal suppression of the Red Shirts in 2010, went further and questioned the factual basis for HRW’s lese majeste “backsliding” claims. Kwanravee said that the figures HRW have been using for their claim that lese majeste cases have increased under the present government are baseless. “The National Human Rights Commission [cited by HRW] doesn't have any concrete information of the number of people charged with lese majeste,” she said. “By using these figures HRW are not presenting any verifiable evidence.” Internationally recognized lese majeste expert Dr. David Streckfuss agrees with Kwanravee’s assessment. “Most of the cases we have heard about in the last few months were initiated during the last [Abhisit] government,” he said. “I would doubt that the number of cases has risen under the new [Pheu Thai] government.”
Criticisms of the international NGOs lack of action on lese majeste and human rights abuses in Thailand, don’t end there. Amnesty International’s lead researcher, Ben Zawacki, has been repeatedly questioned regarding to comments he once made that appeared to defend the use of the lese majeste law. He was also queried for seemingly colluding with Abhisit-era Thai government officials when designating the Prisoner of Conscience status of one Thailand’s most infamous lese majeste prisoners, Da Torpedo. Furthermore, at the end of 2011 Zawacki told Bangkok-based reporter, Marwaan Macan-Markar, that “Amnesty is unfortunately not able to assign a number of political prisoners in Thailand since the 2006 coup.” Zawacki went on to say that “AI has "no plans" for a report to expose the number of people jailed in Thailand for LM.” And this line that Thailand’s political prisoners are hard to quantify or don’t exist at all has been parroted by the US State Department’s report on human rights in Thailand which states, point blank, “There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.”
One of Thailand’s leading academics and thinkers, Dr. Thongchai Winichakul, a former student radical who was present at the infamous Thammasat Massacre in 1976, has recently made very strong statements on the entire Thai human rights community’s failings on lese majeste and other issues in interviews he gave to me here and here.
In these interviews Thongchai questioned not only the ethics of both Amnesty and HRW but also pointed directly to both NGOs being politicized.
“For the first five year from 2005 onwards both AI and HRW were inactive, silent, and implicitly against the effort to fight this unjust law [lese majeste] and also to help victims of this law. The bottom-line was, in my opinion, that HRW and AI received most of their information from, and followed the views of, a group of local Thai human rights people who are dominated by anti-Thaksin activists. This group are very biased and lack the usual professionalism necessary to uphold human rights principles. They are too politicized and their politics seem to have clouded their views and judgments on human rights issues. Most of them supported the coup and a few senior human rights figures even joined the “tours” organized and financed by the coup regime to explain to the world the necessity of the coup. Their political biases blinded them from seeing the victims of the LM as political prisoners or prisoners of conscience because most of these victims are Thaksin supporters or at least anti-coup regime. Also many of the human rights lawyers became active supporters for the anti-Thaksin, PAD Yellow camp. And even today, these human rights activists and lawyers refuse to provide legal assistance to the poor families of Red Shirts supporters who have been victims of the Abhisit-regimes repressive use of LM laws and who were jailed since the violent crackdown in mid-2010.”
It is set against this entire backdrop that the present Yingluck Shinawatra-led government has recently opened a new political prison to house those incarcerated for crimes related to “politics”. All the lese majeste prisoners interviewed were keen to make it clear that they supported this move by the government and all considered themselves political prisoners. “We want political status,” said one, while nearly all of the prisoners also threatened to stage a hunger strike if they weren’t transferred to the political prison as soon as possible.
“One of the reasons we opened the new political prison was to make sure the security and safety of these prisoners could be maintained,” says Jarupan Koldiloke MP. “I also want to say that we are doing our best to make sure the lese majeste prisoners are moved there quickly. Hopefully this will take place soon.”
Thida Thavornsate also made it clear the Red Shirt leadership consider the lese majeste detainees political. “All the lese majeste prisoners are political prisoners and need to be moved to Laksi [the political prison]. Though I do have to say that there are still some problems with facilities at the new prison but we have to remember that the establishment were completely opposed to it opening at all.”
I was granted unique access to the new political prison and spoke to several of those incarcerated there, none of whom have been charged with lese majeste and all of whom were awaiting trial or appeals. “We are much happier here,” was the resounding message delivered during our interview with them. “We are all Red Shirts,” one said, “and while this government isn’t perfect, we know, unlike the last government, that it comes from a democratic election.” All these prisoners also spoke of prison “politicizing” them and that in the new prison they felt “more together as a group” and less “scared”.
On the failures of HRW and AI the prisoners said that neither organization “has helped us at all.” One said “Why don’t they monitor our cases?” and another “How can HRW say things are worse under the Yingluck government? Don’t they understand anything that has happened here?”
So where now for Thailand? The reforms that many consider necessary to return Thailand to full democratic normalcy appear to be hampered, under threat of force, by shadowy political forces while those usually relied upon to impart an independent account of what is going on in the country are seemingly politicized and failing to tackle key issues.
Yet, not all Thais are daunted by this. Some are ready for whatever lies ahead. “Let them stage their coup,” says Jittra Kotchadet. “Let the world see what is really going on here.”