Govt must respect the right to political asylum

Thai fugitives fleeing politically motivated lese majeste charges have the right to sanctuary abroad

The Nation January 27, 2015 1:00 am

Political asylum” is defined as protection afforded by a nation to foreigners who flee political persecution in their own country. The right to political asylum has been recognised for thousands of years, dating back to ancient Greece.

In modern times the basic principle of asylum was forged in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

Article 14 of the declaration says, 1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution; and 2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Thailand, as a member of the UN, has an obligation to comply with the declaration. Thus the government of this country should halt efforts to extradite citizens who have sought asylum abroad.

Prime Minister Prayut Cha-o-cha said last week that he had instructed the Foreign Ministry to ask almost a dozen countries to send back Thais accused of violating the lese majeste law.

Prayut specifically mentioned Akapop Luara, better known as “Tang Acheeva”, who has reportedly been granted political asylum in New Zealand.

Two weeks earlier the Foreign Ministry invited the chargé d’affaires at the New Zealand Embassy to look into the case of Akapop after the fugitive posted a picture of himself on Facebook holding a New Zealand passport, with a message saying he was living there.

Last week Thai royalists staged a brief demonstration in front of the New Zealand Embassy in Bangkok, demanding that Wellington extradite “a lese majeste suspect” living in exile there, and threatening to step up measures if New Zealand failed to comply.

Akapop’s case is far from unique. The military government and ultra-royalist groups have been hunting a slew of academics, journalists and political activists in connection with alleged infractions against the monarchy. No country has responded to the extradition demands so far. Premier Prayut has explained that Thailand has no power to force foreign countries to comply. Since foreign governments and the UN, he said, “claim they are protecting human rights, I don’t know what can be done. We are not strong enough [to force them]. Let’s wait until Thailand becomes a superpower and then we might be able to do so.”

Fortunately for the world, Thailand is unlikely to become a superpower anytime soon. But, even if the Kingdom did command such influence, it is important for Prime Minister Prayut to understand and respect the rights of others – his political enemies included – to seek asylum. The government has neither the right nor the authority to force them to return to the Kingdom.

Lese majeste is a crime outlined under Article 112 of the Penal Code. It stipulates that “whoever, defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years”. Its aim is to protect the head of state from criticism. However, the terms “defames” and” insults” have been interpreted by those in power to cover any criticism of the monarchy. In many cases the law has been used to protect other members of the royal family from perceived criticism, although it is only meant to protect Their Majesties the King and Queen, the heir to the throne and, if there be one, the regent. In reality, the law is being used for political purposes – mainly to silence and punish enemies of the government.

This being the case, those who are charged with lese majeste have the right to seek asylum abroad. If they gain that asylum, the game is over. The government has no right to seek their extradition, no matter what kind of extradition treaty Thailand has with the countries in question.