Debating human rights

5 11 2009

Our headline is a little misleading, it is really debating the way many self-proclaimed human rights activists and groups in Thailand and in international agencies such as Amnesty International are weak or silent on lese majeste and most other alleged crimes that stifle free expression.

Prachatai has published a short debate involving the chair of Union for Civil Liberty (UCL) Danthong Breen who responds to Awzar Thi’s criticism of human rights advocates in Thailand, and academic Thongchai Winishakul, who responds to Danthong (Prachatai, 5 November 2009: “Danthong Breen’s response to Awzar Thi’s criticism on human rights activists in Thailand”/วิวาทะจุดยืนนักสิทธิมนุษยชนไทยในสถานการณ์ปัจจุบัน).

UCL was once was a brave opponent of the political “crime” of lese majeste (see here as an example). It seems that Awzar Thi’s criticism of human rights diplomacy and comments has caused Danthong some concern. PPT suspects that comments such as these trouble people like Danthong, for he agrees on the criticisms of ASEAN’s human rights mechanism:

“Rights diplomats fear to speak out because they might step on officials’ toes or risk their status with fellow diplomats. They sacrifice their ability to communicate on critically important issues on the streets in order to keep their cherished places at the table. This is why, for instance, some groups have failed to speak out against the use of the lèse majesté law to silence and imprison people in Thailand, when in principle they ought to have not even hesitated.”

and

“Persons who engage in self-censorship on the pretence of dialogue should expect little sympathy later when they find that they have been made victims of their own attempts at diplomacy, and then cry out that they have been unfairly treated.”

PPT presents the comments in full here:

Dear Pen Name, [PPT: he means Awzar Thi, who uses this pen name, it is mentioned in the Thai version. As readers will see below, Danthong is critical of the use of pen names….]

I am totally in agreement with you on your assessment of the new ASEAN human rights initiative. I am also all for breaking silences and challenging taboos. However, I also respect the opinion of other human rights activists who sincerely believe that they can work from within the system and seize whatever foothold is offered, however tenuous it may appear. I have avoided all meetings and initiatives on the ASEAN mechanism because I truly believe like you, that it will be fruitless. But, I am aware that I do not have access to total understanding on the issue and I am very certain that your understanding is also limited. If people whom I know and respect think they can succeed in another way, why then, good luck to them. Let the dialectic work. Scathing condemnation will not be effective in changing their totally legitimate viewpoint. All that you achieve by attacking them is to spread discouragement and division in our movement. You claim 15 years of experience as an advocate of human rights in Thailand. Your assumed right to criticise is hardly explained or justified by the 15 years. I can not only match you but claim even longer experience, including united front activity which based itself on finding common ground. May I gently recommend that you reconsider the tactic of denunciation.

AHRC provides an excellent service of cataloging and exposing injustice, both for those within Thailand itself and abroad, often drawing attention to abuses of which we were not aware. But please do not try to damage the working liaisons we have. You must know that each one has to choose an area of activity, it is hardly wise to expose oneself on every issue however strongly one might feel about them. We are continually assailed by accusations such as ‘You speak on issue x, how can you remain silent on issue y?’ As well accuse an army fighting on the eastern front, of neglecting the war on the western front!

I challenge you to circulate this letter to your readers and allow discussion on the issue. I know several people who no longer read your valuable emails because of the occasional ranting. May I also point to the anomaly of your writing anonymously, while urging action on those who cannot preserve nor wish anonymity in speaking out openly on contentious issues. Please declare yourself bravely for who you are and hear the opinions of others with the respect they deserve.

Danthong Breen,

Union for Civil Liberty, Bangkok

Thongchai Winichakul’s response is shorter and reproduced below:

Dear Mr. Breen,

When there is a pattern in the selectiveness and omission of issues to fight for, and the pattern is in accordance with certain political camps, we call bias and partiality.

If a human rights advocate, like you, cannot make the distinction between practical limits (therefore need to set a priority of issues) and a bias/impartiality, if a human rights activist cannot see their own serious mistakes like impartiality, your human rights works may contribute to more injustice and the widespread hopelessness for justice. Human rights works then contribute to more divisiveness and potential to violence.

Is this criticism polite enough? I think Thi’s article is not as strong as your reaction to him/her.

The above name is real, not a pen-name.

The debate here is representative of the splits within the Thai human rights and activist community that really began in the late 1990s. Recall that back then, some became racist neo-nationalists and joined extreme rightists and the monarchy in nationalist campaigns that also had somethign to do with the support the Thai Rak Thai Party achieved in getting elected. Those nationalist and royalist traits were shown again in the often uncritical support that NGOs and activists gave to the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

Those splits have now widened and the result is that there are now human rights groups and activists who are thoroughly royalist and are seemingly unable to distinguish political enemies and human right abuses. It is a sorry state of affairs.


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