Obama's message to Yingluck
If the newly re-elected president wants to uphold the human rights principles the US professes to believe in, he should speak out on unresolved injustices in the South and on the streets of Bangkok, the country's draconian lese majeste law and the continuing use of child and forced migrant labour
While many are talking about what US President Barack Obama will say about human rights in his trips to Myanmar and Cambodia, little is being said about the serious human rights problems in Thailand. Mr Obama's visit to Thailand is an opportunity to press the Thai government and military to end abuses in the South, protect freedom of expression, and hold those responsible for political violence to account.
In his meeting with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra today, Mr Obama should make it clear that the US opposes an amnesty for the killings and other abuses related to the 2010 anti-government protests. He should then repeat this in public. In doing so, Mr Obama can show the people of Asia that the US "pivot" to the region is not just about containing China or enhancing US security and economic interests, but is about how ordinary citizens are treated by their governments.
Thailand's close relationship with the US is shown by the fact that it is one of only two officially designated "major non-Nato allies" of the US in Southeast Asia, and it hosts the annual Cobra Gold training activities, the largest land-based US training in the region. Indeed, Mr Obama's trip was preceded by the Nov 15 signing by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and Defence Minister ACM Sukumpol Suwanatat of the 2012 Joint Vision Statement for the Thai-US Defence Alliance.
While the US has been active behind the scenes in promoting improved practices by the Thai military, it has long been silent in public about extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances. It has not pressed for the army to be held accountable for its abuses in the South or during the May 2010 protests.
While abuses in the South have declined since Ms Yingluck took office in August 2011, no security forces personnel have been prosecuted for past or recent human rights abuses. For decades, the military has essentially been above the law. This needs to change, and Mr Obama can play a positive role by openly discussing the need for the rule of law.
Mr Obama should ensure that this new agreement will not lead to US silence about human rights abuses by the Thai military. In line with the Leahy law that prevents the US from cooperating or providing assistance to rights abusing security units, Mr Obama should make it clear that the US will not participate in joint programmes or activities with units and personnel implicated in serious human rights violations.
PRESIDENTIAL APPOINTMENT: PM Yingluck will meet with President Obama today.
Part of the challenge for military and police accountability is Thailand's hotly divided political scene, with battle lines still drawn by the red shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and its allies in government, and the yellow shirt People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and a conservative grouping coalescing around Pitak Siam. The vibrant scenes on Bangkok streets should not confuse the visiting American president, who should know that at least 90 people died and more than 2,000 were injured during political confrontations that occurred in Bangkok and other cities from March to May 2010. Human Rights Watch concluded in its 2011 report "Descent into Chaos" that the Thai military and elements within the UDD, particularly "black shirt" militants, were responsible for the violence, though the military was responsible for the majority of casualties. Since the shooting stopped, and despite ample evidence to the contrary, both sides have been in denial that their people committed any abuses.
Accountability needs to start somewhere, yet events are trending in precisely the opposite direction. Attempts by Ms Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party and its coalition partners to pass an amnesty law for those responsible for violence during the 2010 political upheaval are continuing. While he wants to improve governmental relations, Mr Obama should speak up for the Thai people and state clearly that generals and politicians should not be allowed to escape criminal accountability by cutting an amnesty deal. This is an attempt to whitewash crimes, pure and simple. Lasting stability and effective political reconciliation in Thailand should be built on a foundation of justice, not impunity. The US should demand that the Thai government prosecute all those responsible, regardless of political affiliation or position.
Unfortunately, one area where prosecutions are growing in Thailand has to do with the draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, including on the internet. Thousands of websites have been blocked for containing content considered offensive to the monarchy. Under the lese majeste statute of the Penal Code and the Computer Crimes Act, Thai authorities continue to prosecute individuals deemed to be critical of the monarchy, as well as webmasters and magazine editors who fail to censor lese majeste content. Often persons charged with lese majeste offences have been denied bail and remain jailed for many months awaiting trial. In many cases, those convicted receive very harsh sentences. Amphon Tangnoppakul, known as "Uncle SMS", who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sending four lese majeste text messages in 2010, died in prison at age 62 on May 8, 2012. Even an American citizen, Joe Gordon, was arrested and prosecuted in Thailand after he was accused of translating and uploading on the web a banned book while in the US.
Mr Obama should press Ms Yingluck to reverse this climate of fear and censorship and urge the Thai government to reform lese majeste laws in line with international human rights standards.
This visit will include an announcement by the US and Thailand that Bangkok has agreed to join negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement that is being promoted by the US. But as part of that negotiation, there will be significantly increased scrutiny of Thailand and its labour rights record. Successive Thai governments have harassed Thai workers seeking to form unions and demand their rights.
Two million migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, many of whom produce goods for export to the US market, have suffered pervasive and serious human rights abuses. Thai law discriminates against migrants by barring them from organising and establishing unions. A nexus of corrupt law enforcement officials and employers prey on their vulnerability with sub-par wages and long hours, dangerous working conditions, and physical abuse. 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. Mr Obama should tell Ms Yingluck that Thailand will not advance far in TPP negotiations unless it cleans up its act and starts respecting the human rights of workers toiling in the Kingdom.
Finally, since Mr Obama will leave Thailand for Myanmar, he should also press Thailand to protect refugees and asylum seekers, including Myanmar nationals fleeing persecution or war, and not engage in deportations without adequate safeguards and processing. Thailand has borne a great burden in hosting those people for decades. Mr Obama should publicly welcome the Thai government's assurances that those 140,000 Myanmar refugees living in camps on the Thai-Myanmar border will not be forced to return home against their will. In preparation their for return, the US should offer concrete assistance.
Mr Obama's first trip abroad after winning re-election is an important test of his commitment to individual rights. The reaffirmation of 180 years of strong bilateral ties with Thailand will be a genuine cause for celebration if they are built first and foremost on mutual respect for human rights.
Sunai Phasuk is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
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Writer: Sunai Phasuk