Apolice investigation into the killing of a Lao exiled political activist in Ubon Ratchathani province on May 17 is moving quietly.
Even though the case involved the shooting death of an asylum seeker who held UN refugee status, police are seemingly treating the case as a homicide, not a systematic transnational human rights violation as it should be.
As a party state to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Thailand has a duty to give the case special treatment and ensure that a probe is independent, fair, transparent and done promptly.
Almost two weeks, Pol Maj Gen Prasit Ruangdej, superintendent of Ubon Ratchathani Provincial Police, told the media that police are working to find out whether the shooting of 56-year-old Bounsuan Kitiyano was a personal issue or politically motivated.
Boonsuan, a member of Free Lao, a civic group critical of the Vientiane government, was reportedly shot three times while riding a motorcycle. His body was found in the forest in Sri Muang Mai district of the northeastern province bordering Laos. Police found Lao-brand cigarette butts at the crime scene, believed to come from perpetrators waiting for the ambush, and a large knife believed to be used to cut the grass.
The case did not draw much local media attention. Police are reportedly focused on getting information from related agencies such as the Lao government and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
But the police should, first and foremost, shift focus to finding the murder suspects.
Boonsuan had lived in Thailand for over four years, awaiting his asylum request to settle in Australia. In Thailand, he has been active and seen protesting in front of the Lao embassy in Bangkok and campaigning on human and environmental rights, as well as anti-corruption issues and democracy.
Boonsuan's case is not the only one that reflects the risks that political activists and refugees who use Thailand as a transit for asylum seeking face. Od Sayavong, a Lao human rights and democracy activist who was living in Bangkok, has been missing since August 2019. Several political activists and refugees who fled repressive governments to stay in Thailand have been reported as disappeared or repatriated back to where they had fled, such as the case of Uyghurs who were sent back to China several years ago.
A crime against exiled refugees under United Nations recognition is a defiance of Thai justice and the attention of security protection given to these vulnerable groups. These violations, either blatant killing, kidnapping, or simply being threatened, only breed a climate of fear that indulge perpetrators to violate human rights even more.
But the safety of these political activists and refugees should not be only the task of local government or police investigations. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is trying to buttress the institutionalisation of human rights dialogue. As part of that, it must prioritise the safety of political activists and political refugees at the next Asean meeting on human rights to be held in Indonesia later this year.
The regional bloc must pass this issue to the Lao government, which will serve as Asean's chair next year.
It is time for Asean to create systematic measures to address human rights violations in the region. Let the safety issue of political activists be the first step in making the region safe for whistle-blowers and political activists so they can live without fear.