Updated: No political prisoners in Thailand?

24 05 2012

Earlier today, the U.S. State Department released their annual reports on human rights, the 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. There is a lot that PPT could say about the authority of the U.S. government to comment on human rights, given the U.S.’s own terrible track record on respecting and promoting human rights. However, for now we will restrain ourselves and simply make one point.

While the report for Thailand does detail torture cases, point to the continued use of disappearance, and comment briefly on freedom of expression issues, they deny the existence of political prisoners.

In fact, the precise wording is that “There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.”

PPT suggests that the U.S. State Department check their sources of information. Why not ask Somyos Pruksakasemsuk, Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul, or Joe Gordon if there are political prisoners in Thailand? If they read this site or Prachatai, they would have a much different perspective. In the last year, mainline newspapers, including Matichon and the Bangkok Post have carried numerous reports on political prisoners. Even the Thai government no longer denies the existence of political prisoners in Thailand, although their definition is rather narrow.

Update: A reader has commented on PPT’s final sentence above, pointing out that not only does the Thai state now recognize political prisoners, but has created a special prison for political prisoners! That the U.S. Department of State ignores lese majeste as a political crime and ignores the incarceration of prisoners the state itself considers political prisoners is, frankly, both bizarre and stupid.

The betrayal of Joe Gordon

1 05 2012

Joe Gordon is not forgotten.

Joe, an American citizen, was arrested on 26 May 2011 by the Department of Special Investigation on lese majeste, security and related computer crimes infringements. On 7 October 2011, frustrated by the continual refusal of bail and facing the prospect of a long and drawn out trial and a long period in jail (almost no one is found not guilty), Joe decided to plead guilty.

On 8 December 2011, following his guilty plea, Joe was sentenced to a two and a half year prison sentence, reduced from five for the guilty plea. When he is alleged to have insulted the monarchy, he was engaging in legal activity in the United States.

Joe reportedly stood calmly with his ankles shackled as the sentence was read out. He has remained in prison for almost 5 months since that guilty plea.

The United States Embassy and the Department of State have failed this American citizen. The latter’s human rights policies and practices are bizarre, as this post makes very clear.

Why is Joe still incarcerated? Why is the State Department publicly silent? We suspect it has something to do with the gutless advice provided some years ago by the Ambassador to the palace, PAD and privy council, Ralph “Skip” Boyce. He said: “If an AmCit were to be charged with lese majeste, it is likely that a low key approach outside the public eye would stand the best chance of success in getting him or her out of custody and out of Thailand.”

What he means is that one doesn’t rock the monarchy’s boat in a Thailand that is a trusted ally. It seems that “Skip” means skipping the duty to speak out on human rights. In our view, this poor advice is part of the reason why Joe Gordon remains incarcerated.

Joe apparently followed the advice of pleading guilty and waiting for the royal pardon that Boyce reckoned was the best way to deal with this for an “AmCit.” That the Embassy and State Department appear to be neglecting Joe adds insult to his now almost one year in jail.

PPT can’t wait to read the next State Department report in human rights to see how they deal with their abject failure on Joe’s case.

Anyone heard anything at all from Ambassador Kenney in recent months? She seemed to buckle at the first hint of controversy.

Updated: Political prisoners identified

10 01 2012

The U.S. State Department needs to take note of this report in the Bangkok Post. According to the report, there are “about 50 people fitting the status of political prisoners” in Thailand.

PPT reckons this is a very low estimate – we’d put it closer to 300 – but the State Department regularly states, in its Human Rights Report [a PDF], that there are none, zilch, nil, zero political prisoners. Let’s quote them: “There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.”

Now that there is a rough official estimate that makes the State Department look very, very silly indeed.

The report states that the “Corrections Department has drawn up criteria for deciding which inmates are to be defined as political prisoners and moved to a new jail.” That move is in line with a recommendation by the Truth for Reconciliation Commission.

A panel chaired by Kobkiat Kasiwiwat “agreed that political prisoners are those who face criminal charges, are on trial or seeking judicial appeals as a result of political conflicts before and after Sept 19, 2006 coup.”

According to the report:

Under these criteria, yellow-shirt protesters charged in connection with the seizure of Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports and red shirts charged with terrorism and arson over political unrest in 2010 are designated as political prisoners.

There have only a handful of yellow shirts jailed over political violence, and we guess that many of them are already released. Meanwhile, the red shirts claim that there remain more than 100 of their number in jail.

Part of the reason the number of political prisoners is so “low” is that “Kobkiat said the Corrections Department would exercise utmost judgement when lese majeste charges are involved.”

Of course, for PPT, all lese majeste cases are political. Indeed, they can’t be anything else in royalist Thailand.

Update: A reader asks if we are supporting the idea of political prisoners being institutionalized separately is “normalizing” the idea that there are political prisoners in Thailand. We’re not doing this. Rather, we are pointing out that, contrary to the U.S. State Department, even Thai officials now admit that they have political prisoners incarcerated. We also added inverted commas to the word “low” above. PPT wants all political prisoners released.

The United States and Joe Gordon

11 12 2011

There’s an AP feature story at the Winnipeg Free Press that is worth reading in full. It comments on US policy and the fate of lese majeste victim Joe Gordon.

It begins: “The U.S. government prides itself on standing up for freedom of speech around the world, but when it comes to longtime ally Thailand and its revered monarch, Washington treads carefully — even when an American citizen is thrown in jail.”

It is sometimes neglected, but the critical element of Joe’s sentencing is that it was for a “crime” committed as an American citizen while he was living in Colorado. Yes, he is claimed to have translated bits of a perfectly legal and widely available book, by a reputable publisher, while in the United States.

So what does the US government do? It “has offered a measured response to the ‘severe’ sentence — saying it was ‘troubled’ by the outcome and asserting the right to free expression of people around the world. It has avoided direct criticism of Thailand over its use of laws punishing lese majeste, the crime of insulting a monarch.”

Indeed, the report should have added that, like royalist posterior polishers in Thailand, the US went out of its way to declare “loyalty” to the monarchy.

The report points out the glaringly obvious: “Washington’s comments pale next to the strident criticism it gives when dissidents, even those without U.S. ties, are jailed by more authoritarian governments in the neighbourhood, like China and Vietnam. The State Department typically calls for dissidents’ immediate release and urges the government in question to uphold international law.”

The report looks for the reasons for this blatant and jarring contradiction in US policy, saying the “muted U.S. response may be partly explained by an unwillingness to spoil efforts to secure a royal pardon for Gordon, as has happened for foreigners previously convicted of lese majeste.” This is always the excuse of consular and embassy officials and ambassadors who privately express outrage, but only as far as the next cocktail party with the Thai royalist and hi-so elite.

The report also adds that the muted response “also reflects the depth of U.S. relations with Thailand, which date back to 1833. The country was viewed as a bulwark against the spread of communism and served as a key base for U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. As the Obama administration seeks to step up its engagement in Asia, it wants to consolidate its old alliances.” That’s undoubtedly true. It could be added that US anti-communism in Thailand helped create the wealthy and politically powerful monarchy. It poured millions into supporting anti-communist propaganda that promoted the king, royal family and the monarchy.

The report might have also pointed out that US corporations have extensive business interests in Thailand, and protecting the rights of one US citizen (in the US) is said by weak-kneed officials to threaten those interests. Of course, that doesn’t apply to the China case, where business interests dwarf those in Thailand.

There is another claim: That “Washington may also view behind-the-scenes efforts to get Thai authorities to ease up on lese majeste prosecutions more effective in a society where public criticism can backfire.” Like an Asia Times story on “behind-the-scenes” dealing, this claim has no source. Until there is a shred of evidence, PPT believes it is the usual royalist guff sprouted when the regime is under pressure and that little will change.

The story has the other and usual royalist nonsense about “Bhumibol is revered in Thailand and widely seen as a stabilizing force” without considering why the lese majeste law is being used so harshly and whether there is much historical truth to the claim.

Another claim is: “Even among Washington think tanks and U.S. universities, experts on Thailand often prefer not to discuss the monarchy and lese majeste for fear they could be blacklisted.” There are relatively few experts on Thailand in the US, and those close to the State Department are almost universally royalist flunkies.

That US officials, including several ambassadors, have failed the citizens they are meant to represent is clear from even the State Department’s Human Rights reports that regularly parrot that there are no political prisoners in Thailand. Thailand’s Truth for Reconciliation Commission makes the State Department look stupid on this, listing more than 100 still in prison following the events of 2010.

Even the Democrat Party has acknowledged that: “Violations of the state of emergency … along with lese-majeste offences or computer crimes can be counted as political charges…”. If the people who put most of the political prisoners behind bars can acknowledge it, why not the US government and its officials?

When the State Department wrote its last report, there were hundreds more, and that is not including all of the victims of lese majeste and of the southern conflict, where hundreds more could be added to the list of political prisoners.

U.S. expresses lese majeste concern

7 12 2011

A few days ago the European Union expressed deep concern regarding the sentences being handed out to lese majeste victims in Thailand. Now AP reports that the United States has expressed official concern.

Swallowing hard after years of conspiratorial silence, Darragh Paradiso, the State Department spokeswoman for East Asia, “said the United States has utmost respect for the Thai monarchy.” But she added that the U.S. is “troubled by recent prosecutions and court decisions that are not consistent with international standards of freedom of expression.”

Later this week, the Thai-born American citizen Joe Gordon is due to be sentenced lese majeste charges that relate to the translation of the Yale University Press book The King Never Smiles. Gordon faces up to 15 years in jail and perhaps more if convicted on more than one charge. Let’s await the U.S. reaction on this case. They have  where they have generally been publicly mum.

The AP report finishes with this curiously ahistorical claim that deserves brief comment: “The current crackdown also reflects growing concern over the health of the 84-year-old king, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, and the future of an institution that has long united the country.”

Has the institution “long united” the country? If we look at the past 80 years, this seems an odd reading of history. A cursory glance at the history books shows that at least the period from 1931 to 1957 saw the monarchy at the center of political instability. It was there again in 1973-78 and again from 2006 to the present. By our calculation, that makes the monarchy an element of instability and division.

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Gordon

13 11 2011

Prachatai has another article by Lisa Gardner on the continuing lese majeste torture of U.S. citizen Joe Gordon, accused of translating works and posting links to Paul Handley’s widely available The King Never Smiles that almost anyone in Thailand who wants to has seen. Joe is was arrested in Thailand and accused of such “crimes” allegedly committed while he was living in the United States.

The report states that Joe is: “A political prisoner, no question; and a U.S. citizen, no less. A used car salesman from Boulder, Colorado. By international standards, the charges are conspicuously political as they are innocuous.”

Gardner refers to someone who goes by the apparently lightly worn moniker of “human rights advocate.” This person claims that his organization “can’t take up his case without knowing if he’s as pure as the driven snow…”.

That line and similar ones have been mouthed by several allegedly human rights advocates in Thailand, not least by the ever quiet Benjamin Zawacki at Amnesty International. As a major human rights organization, AI embarrasses itself and it supporters by its public silence on lese majeste. It has done nothing for the hundreds of victims of lese majeste repression and torture in Thailand.

Given that Joe has been forced through incarceration and multiple refusals bail – this is the torture in lese majeste repression – to plead guilty, he must now rely “solely on a royal pardon to ensure his release.

A correspondent to Prachatai states that he wrote to the U.S. Embassy and Ambassador Kristie Kenney on Joe’s case and received the following reply:

“Thank you for your letter to Ambassador Kenney of 3 October regarding Mr. Joe W. Gordon. While overseas, all private foreign nationals are subject to the laws of the country where they are located. Many of these laws are vastly different from U.S. laws. As you know, the Thai Department of Special Investigations accused Mr. Gordon, a private U.S. citizen, of lèse-majesté, specifically violating Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code and Section 14(3)(5) of the Thai Computer Crimes Act.

Since Mr Gordon’s arrest in May, Ambassador Kenney and other Embassy officials have raised Mr. Gordon’s situation with the Thai government officials many times, urging fair treatment and respect for his rights to freedom of expression. Embassy officials visit Mr. Gordon in jail regularly and attended his court hearings, most recently on October 10. We remain committed to providing Mr. Gordon all possible assistance allowed a private citizen under international convention.


Chief of American Citizen Services Unit”

The essential element of this is that the embassy and ambassador are doing nothing for Joe. They are meant to visit all U.S. citizens in prison, showing up in their air-conditioned cars and neatly pressed clothes to provide faux sympathy for a citizen in leg irons and prison garb accused of a crime in the United States. Big deal that they claim to take the case up with Thai government officials several times, “urging fair treatment and respect for his rights to freedom of expression.”

That is, frankly, diplomatic speak for doing nothing. Where is the expression of a U.S. citizen’s right to free speech in the United States? All this lot are doing is following previous ambassadorial advice: keeping a quiet public front, urging a guilty plea from the defendant (whether they are guilty or not), and then hoping for a pardon. Despite the fact that its own Human Rights report complains of a generalized pressure to sign confessions, U.S. diplomats play the palace’s game with them and do nothing to confront a dangerous abuse of basic civil rights.

Now here’s a thought or perhaps a wild dream. U.S. President Barack Obama is about to visit the Southeast Asia region. In that visit he will, according to the State Department, amongst other things, “stand up for democratic values.” The State Department has commented, just in the past few days, on human rights abuses in Vietnam, Burma, Uganda, Syria and Afghanistan, just to name a few. Secretary of State Clinton, who is about to visit Thailand, has recently made several statements on human rights and democracy, praising the U.S. ambassador in Syria as one of our diplomats of courage, who “was mobbed, assaulted, and threatened, just for meeting with peaceful protestors, he put his personal safety on the line to let the Syrian people know that America stands with them.”

What about letting an American citizen know that America stands with him? Why not have Obama raise Joe’s case and the human rights abuse that is lese majeste? What about having Clinton do the same. What about having Ambassador Kenney be a diplomat of courage and visit Joe and other lese majeste victims? Maybe Clinton can specifically mention lese majste in a public way. Maybe the State Department can even list the victims of lese majeste repression as political prisoners in its annual human rights report, where its most recent 2011 report continues to state the ludicrously erroneous (and palpably stupid) single line: “There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.”

While we doubt such acts of diplomatic “courage” will be seen, it would be a welcome change to see the United States act in a way that at least appeared to be something other than a supporter of the royalist status quo in Thailand.

Wikileaks, palace and political meddling

14 08 2011

On 28 March 2006, just a month before the king made a most decisive political intervention, the U.S.  Ambassador Ralph Boyce is, in this Wikileaks cable, telling Washington and embassies around the world that the palace is neutral and wanting to stay out of politics.

Asa Sarasin

The cable begins with the interesting note that the “Ambassador called on Asa Sarasin, the King’s Principal Private Secretary, on March 28 to deliver an advance copy of the controversial biography of the King that is slated to be published in the United States in May.” In fact, according to this academic account, Boyce had gone to considerable lengths to placate the Thaksin Shinawatra government and the palace over Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. Providing the palace with an advance copy (apparently, Yale University Press provided two copies to the State Department) was one more step in this process.

In the meeting with Boyce, Asa maintained that the palace was concerned about:

the repeated calls from anti-Thaksin demonstrators for the King to intervene to resolve the current political impasse. Asa said that the King did not intend to intervene, since that would be a set back for Thailand’s democratic development. The Palace believes that the situation can be resolved without the King’s intervention.

That’s not exactly a statement of political integrity by a constitutional monarchy. It is merely a statement of the belief that the political crisis could be resolved without the king having to intervene. Of course, the palace was already deeply involved with the People’s Alliance for Democracy and in aligning the royalist elite against the elected government.

In fact, Asa concludes that either the courts will get rid of Thaksin or that “the demonstrations will continue unabated. Eventually, in his [Asa’s] assessment, the PM will be forced to concede to the unending opposition, and step down.” Asa is reported to have continued:

In either case, Asa said, the situation will be resolved without the need for royal intervention. It may take time, since the PM is “ignoring all the signals.” [PPT: presumably including those from the palace.]  But the Palace prefers this to the option of a premature and unnecessary interference in politics.

Boyce seems gleeful in recording his general agreement, stating that despite the Constitutional Court’s “shady reputation,” if it doesn’t rule against the legality of the election of some candidates for the Thai Rak Thai Party in the still to be held election, then the PAD will be bolstered.

PPT can’t help wondering if Boyce was being mischievous in this cable. He was well aware that the palace was highly politicized. In an earlier cable he noted that the palace did not rule out intervention. Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda had already declared that Thaksin should go. Privy Councilor General Surayud Chulanont had told Boyce that the political situation was “a mess” – term later used by the king – and noted Thaksin’s “corruption.”

If the news reports of the period from late 2005-April 2006 are examined, the palace’s political involvement is seen in, for example, the campaign to keep the oddball but anti-Thaksin Attorney-General Jaruvan Maintaka in her position, despite the lack of a legal foundation for her staying on. Her claim, not apparently disputed by the palace, was that she was appointed by royal decree and only the king could dismiss her. Prem was making heralded visits to the south, claiming government policies there had failed – they might have, but this was political campaigning by the palace’s senior official. He and Surayud were engaged in politicking on the annual military reshuffle in December 2005-January 2006.

There’s no need to continue. Boyce knew all of this and more and yet portrayed the palace as neutral and constitutionally correct; he wasn’t simply reporting palace positions, he was agreeing with them.

Boyce is now Vice President, Boeing International and President, Boeing Southeast Asia, where he continues to maintain his royalist and military links in Thailand.


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