ASEAN turns deaf ear to concerns on rights in Thailand

The junta may feel a bit smug that there was no mention of the May 22 coup at the 47th Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting in Myanmar last week.

The junta may feel a bit smug that there was no mention of the May 22 coup at the 47th Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting in Myanmar last week.

Similarly, Asean can feel the same as talking about the internal situation of a member country rarely happens at the regional forum — unless it is one so horrendous and brutal it cannot be avoided.

But this does not mean there was no attempt to knock on Asean’s door to ask permission to express concern about what is happening in Thailand under the junta.

Social organisations with decades-long connections to Thailand did, in the first month of the country’s 19th coup, stage protests in front of embassies against the abolishment of the constitution, the military takeover of administrative power and the curbs on freedom of expression.

But not all Asean member countries got the message from the network of NGOs; only some managed to get through in Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. Some quarters of Thai civil society are only now gradually starting to voice their concerns and work with other Asean and Asian hands to remind the world of Thailand’s unusual political situation.

As the 100th day of the coup approaches on Aug 30, a network of activists across Asean are preparing protests against military rule outside Thai embassies in the region. Their actions will be in solidarity with Thai activists inside the country.

The International Solidarity Group for Thai Democracy and Human Rights, formed in Manila late last month with participants from Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and South Korea, issued a statement last week calling for an end to martial law and repressive orders that violate international human rights standards.

The group has called for the return of a democratically-elected civilian government, which doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon, and the end of all human rights violations. These include the harassment of human rights defenders, community rights defenders and grassroots activists; arbitrary arrests, custody and detention; freedom of assembly; freedom of expression and a right to information. They have also called for all provisions in the interim constitution that violate international human rights standards to be repealed.

The group has nothing to do with the Free Thai Movement for Human Rights and Democracy headed by former Pheu Thai executives in exile.

The solidarity group said while it recognised Thailand had a difficult path back to democracy, human rights could not be ignored or compromised along the way.

Regional organisations have been disappointed by the lack of meaningful discussion on Thailand’s problems at the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), although some proposals were being floated when the commission met in Bangkok early last month.

Christina Cerna, from the Georgetown University Law Centre and a former senior staff member at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, spoke at last month’s consultation between civil groups and the commission.

She said as Thailand’s situation was of international concern, an intergovernmental organisation should carry out an assessment in an urgent and timely fashion.

Ms Cerna sensed there was not much enthusiasm for the idea of introducing a complaint mechanism to the AICHR’s terms of reference. Instead, she suggested the AICHR should explore reviewing, for example, the post-coup human rights situation in Thailand pursuant to the Asean Human Rights Declaration. She pointed out several parts of the commission’s terms of reference could be relevant to the situation in Thailand.

Several participants were keenly interested in her remarks, but no action has come from the meeting.

Sriprapha Petcharamesree, a rights expert from Mahidol University and former Thai AICHR representative, also called on the commission to speak out about the declining state of human rights in Thailand. She added that the Thai public expected to hear such concerns being raised at the AICHR, which is a legitimate body that should have dealings on the matter.

Seree Nonthasoot is the current Thai AICHR representative. While he was not happy about the coup, he has chosen not to raise any human rights concerns with his colleagues on the commission as it would only backfire if he did so. “We all know the AICHR has a tacit agreement not to discuss such an issue,” he said.

Mr Seree, an international law expert, said he has to be patient in order to get reciprocal agreements on other, tangible projects. He added that he did not mind if others raised post-coup concerns, but he would not.

“The Free Thai Movement has already sent their letter to me as an AICHR representative explaining how they see the provisional constitution curbing the Thai people’s rights,” Mr Seree said.

He said the Thai military should also listen to concerns. “They may have to realign the dichotomy on democracy, as the idea of Thai-style democracy does not seem to be universally admired,” Mr Seree said.

However, he said expecting the AICHR to issue any statement of concern was not practical without amending its terms of reference. Among issues to be resolved, Mr Seree said, was to allow the AICHR to receive complaints from individuals, civil society and the private sector.

Article 4.10 allows the AICHR to obtain information from Asean member states, but not other stakeholders.

“Of course, it’s also about creative interpretation of the terms of reference to do things but it’s quite clear that the rules have to be changed as well,” Mr Seree said.

Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for its Asia division, Phil Robertson, said consensus was a specific requirement of the commission’s terms of reference.

“While Thailand has been in the forefront of permitting the operational independence of its AICHR commissioner, I expect that any effort by AICHR to publicly criticise the coup d’etat would be considered a step too far that would face a Thai veto,” he said.

“When one looks for human rights courage in the region, Asean is probably one of the last places to find it, and AICHR’s silence on the situation in Thailand reflects that reality.”