HRW – Human Rights Watch (Autor)
The most serious human rights issue in Thailand continued to be the Thai government’s treatment of refugees, including more than 100,000 Burmese. For Thai citizens, but not for refugees or migrants, the scope for human rights protection increased with the adoption of a new constitution in October 1997. Legal experts and human rights activists pushed during the year for comprehensive legal reforms that would guarantee popular participation and administrative power sharing, protect the independence of the judiciary, and provide for necessary checks on abuse of power by state forces such as the police. As the economic crisis worsened, the new opportunities to make demands on the political system seemed to offer an important outlet for expressing grievances that spared Thailand any major episodes of social unrest during the year. Nevertheless, there were fears that the growing number of unemployed and the government’s inability to ease the hardship could still create social and political troubles ahead.
Human Rights Developments
Treatment of refugees continued to be a major cause for concern. Thailand is still not a party to the 1951 U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees and has no procedures whereby a person can be determined to be a refugee with a well-founded fear of persecution. The government allowed Burmese and Cambodians fleeing armed conflict to stay in camps along Thailand’s borders but refused to acknowledge that human rights violations in the country of origin other than those associated with armed conflict were a valid reason for needing asylum.
In February, the Thai government began negotiations with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that would allow UNHCR a formal role for the first time on the Thai-Burmese border. By September, they appeared to have produced an agreement that would result in a limited protection role for UNHCR but one restricted to those refugees in camps on the border and with the primary aim of facilitating eventual repatriation to Burma.
Burmese from ethnic minority groups who were allowed to stay for the most part had access only to camps along the Thai border that were vulnerable to attack by military groups backed by the Burmese army. One such group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), renewed its terror campaign against ethnic Karen refugees in Thailand. In a series of attacks on Huay Kaloke, Mawker and Mae La refugee camps during March and April, at least four refugees were killed , over fifty wounded and 10,000 made homeless. The DKBA attempted to defend these attacks by claiming that a number of villagers in its control areas had been killed by guerrillas of the Karen Liberation Army, an insurgent force fighting the Burmese government. The DKBA claimed that attacks had been launched from the refugee camps. The Thai government responded by accelerating its plans to consolidate the more than twenty Karen camps at the beginning of the year into just five or six major sites.
In April the new Thai deputy foreign minister, Sukhumbhand Paribatra, visited Rangoon and was reported in the Thai press as saying that Burma’s military rulers had agreed to the UNHCR being involved “in assisting displaced Karens in order to secure their voluntary repatriation.”
In addition, over 500,000 other displaced persons or “illegal migrants” from Burma also remained in Thailand but were vulnerable to arrest and deportation even though many were believed to have a valid fear of persecution. By July, the Thai Labor Department reported that foreign workers had “vacated” 120,000 jobs to make way for Thai workers. Not all of those workers would have been deported, but deportations were clearly on the rise, and serious overcrowding in immigration detention centers had become a major issue by the end of the year. New immigration checkpoints were opened during the year on roads near the Thai border, and anyone detained without proper documentation was subject to instant deportation (and sometimes to abuse, extortion, or theft) without right of appeal.
In February, Thailand’s Interior Minister Sanan Kachornprasart announced that the government was considering abolishing a1952 law banning communism because it contradicted the new constitution and could be used to restrict citizens’ rights. The law gives security officials wide powers of arrest, search, and detention. The move was supported by human rights and pro-democracy activists, but army officials, who had long used the law against suspected drug traffickers, said they would only agree to its repeal if a new law was passed enabling them to have the same powers against suspected traffickers.
Reports continued of abuse and extrajudicial killings by Thai police. In January, a violent police assault on protesting workers outside an auto parts factory led to promises that the police department would improve its systems for riot control and take disciplinary action against police found to have employed excessive force. In March, an inmate who escaped from Kabin Buri Prison along with five others and was recaptured on the same day was found hanged in his prison cell. According to witnesses, his body showed signs of fresh injuries and he appeared to have been beaten, leading to speculation that he had been killed by police. The Ministry of the Interior announced in July that it was investigating the killing of a second inmate in the same institution who was shot to death by a prison janitor, reportedly while his ankles were chained. Prison officials alleged he was armed with a knife and attempting to escape.
In July, relatives of three men slain in Hua Hin district called on Thailand’s director general of police to investigate charges that local police had killed the men and attempted to burn their bodies, apparently to destroy the evidence. They also sought to bar local police from investigating the case. Witnesses charged that the victims were carried to a deserted area in a car with a flashing light on top and were subsequently shot. Gasoline was poured on their bodies, which were thrown onto tires and burned.
On September 16, Salang Bunnag, a suspended deputy police director general, and another high-level police officer failed to appear for the first hearing of the 1996 Suphan Buri murder case in which seventeen police under Salang’s command were accused of the extrajudical killings of six drug suspects. Public prosecutors said Salang would be arrested if he failed to show at the next hearing. Since the case was reopened in March, senior investigating officer Anothai Bamrungphong said he had received threatening phone calls; there was also a shooting incident near his house on June 5. The officer said he believed both had been carried out by officers involved in the Suphan Buri incident.
On November 17, 1997, Thailand enacted the Measures in Prevention and Suppression of Trafficking in Women and Children Act, allowing authorities to detain suspected trafficking victims caught in searches of public places, airports, railway and bus stations, seaports, entertainment establishments and factories for as long as ten days for authentication of their travel documents. The law does not permit authorities to detain suspected traffickers who are accompanying victims.
In an effort to bring its laws into accordance with International Labour Organisation (ILO) standards, Thailand enacted a new labor law that came into force on August 19, which included prohibitions of child labor and sex discrimination, outlawed sexual harassment, and regulated working hours, overtime, and benefits.
In July, Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuan made an unsuccessful effort to change the policy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) of not criticizing fellow members. He proposed a new approach of “flexible engagement” so that Thailand, for example, would be able to raise concerns about Burma through the ASEAN framework. Supported only by the Philippines foreign minister, the idea was dropped.
Defending Human Rights
Thailand continued to be a hub of regional human rights activism on a wide variety of issues, including the economic crisis. Thai academic institutions and large regional nongovernmental networks like the Asian Cultural Forum on Development (ACFOD) and Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia) sponsored a variety of NGO consultations, strategy meetings and human rights training courses for Asia-based activists during the year. Some Bangkok-based regional groups, such as the Alternative ASEAN Network, focused their efforts on supporting pro-democracy efforts, condemning abuses or influencing bilateral policies toward specific countries, such as Burma. Others used Thailand as a base for regional and global efforts on women’s human rights, trafficking in persons, migrant workers’ rights, or refugees. Thailand continued to be an important center for regional nongovernmental work on HIV/AIDS, child prostitution and child labor.
In March, police attempted to restrict the participation of about one hundred international human rights advocates in a five-day seminar on East Timor in Bangkok, saying the foreign participants would violate Thai law if they spoke out against Indonesia. Chulalongkorn University withdrew its cosponsorship of the event after pressure from the authorities. The meeting proceeded under the watchful eye of immigration and Labor Ministry officials and police. Forum-Asia, one of the organizing groups, said immigration police had threatened to ban the second day of the seminar.
Thailand’s own outspoken press and human rights community addressed many of the same issues as their regional colleagues. Activists continued to condemn the Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT) for social and environmental damage in the construction of theYadana gas pipeline. Prominent social critic Sulak Sivaraksa was arrested and then released on bail in connection with a protest against the pipeline in March.
The Role of the International Community
In March, Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai came to the U.S. for a high-profile tour; it was the first such visit by a Thai leader since the Asian economic crisis hit. He met with U.S. President Clinton, as well as members of Congress and officials of theInternational Monetary Fund (IMF), which had just approved payment of U.S.$270 million of a $17.2 billion rescue package for Thailand. Refugee concerns were on the agenda of at least some of his congressional meetings.
In his July confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate and in response to questions submitted by the U.S. Senate, Richard Hecklinger, the new ambassador to Thailand, highlighted the role of the U.S. embassy there in ensuring protection of Burmese refugees through regular visits to the border; he also expressed support for any decision by the UNHCR to open a field office in the border area. He praised the new Thai law on trafficking and said the U.S. did not “knowingly provide training to members of the Thai police who may be traffickers.”
At the same time, the State Department said it would unveil, at the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Manila, plans to contribute funding to a regional program to return trafficked women and children, many of them in Thailand, to their countries of origin.