Updated: Failed on human rights

17 12 2012

In yet another op-ed, Pavin Chachavalpongpun comes to the conclusion that many drew at the time of her appointment as chief of Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) back in 2009:  the NHRC has been “rendered toothless by its Quisling chairwoman” Amara Pongsapich.

A Thai Rath cartoon of Amara's close relationship with Abhisit and the army

A Thai Rath cartoon of Amara’s close relationship with Abhisit and the army

Writing at the Asia Sentinel, Pavin is angered that Amara has not had the NHRC do much of anything on some of the major human rights issues that have emerged during her tenure as chair. He mentions lese majeste, the deaths at the hands of the Army of red shirts in 2010 and the death in custody of lese majeste victim Ampol Tangnopakul.

Back in mid-2010, PPT commented:

PPT has serious doubts about the NHRC and its effectiveness. We’re not even sure that the NHRC even has the capacity to understand the significance of, and deal with difficult, human rights issues in a society that is divided by political conflict. Amara has been totally ineffective and compromised by her links to royalists and Privy Councilor Prem Tinsulanonda.

Amara with CRES at an army base during the red shirt uprising in 2010

Amara gets chummy with the Democrat Party leadership at an army base during the red shirt uprising in 2010

Pavin notes that Amara has been especially supportive of Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was the premier who appointed her. PPT has no doubt that Abhisit appointed her precisely because he knew she was prepared to be a human rights charlatan.

Readers can view several posts over the past three years that are similarly critical of Amara: AHRC on the National Human Rights CommissionAHRC on the new NHRC, We do not lie. Of course they do, King, country, chaos?, NHRC compromised (again), How many are detained?, Somyos and another chance for the NHRC, Is dialogue possible on human rights?, and On the NHRC’s lese majeste procrastination.

Where Pavin’s piece is useful is in pointing out the double standards employed by Amara while she has been at the head of what is meant to be an important protector of human rights. He observes, as PPT has, that “Amara has never been politically neutral since the beginning. Her inclinations and sympathy toward the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the royalist Yellow Shirts…”.

One example of double standards is seen in her recent actions:

When the Yingluck Shinawatra government decided to employ teargas to disperse crowds in the latest anti-government rally led by an elderly former general in late November, Amara and her NHRC were fuming. She immediately released a statement reproaching the government’s measures in dealing with the demonstrators…. “The government was over-reacting and the use of teargas was unacceptable,” she said.*

NHRC head Amara Pongsapich and friend: opposing human rights

NHRC’s Amara with Abhisit: opposing human rights

Another is in the arena of political prisoners, of which there were hundreds during the Abhisit regime: “The NHRC has shown a marked lack of interest in many other cases involving political prisoners, as well as harassment against Thai academics in Thailand who spoke critically of the monarchy.”

Pavin concludes with an observation that is a perfect demonstration of Amara’s bias and disdain for real human rights. He notes that she:

has offered human rights awards to a number of dubious personalities, ranging from a celebrity monk, a controversial [royalist] forensic pathologist and a[n ultra-royalist and ultra-nationalist] detainee in a Phnom Penh prison who was arrested by Cambodia for provoking a conflict between the two countries.

The demise of the NHRC under Amara’s “leadership” is a travesty, but it was what Abhisit intended when he appointed her, and she has not disappointed Abhisit or the royalist elite.

Update: *Bangkok Pundit suggests this attribution to Amara is incorrect.

On the NHRC’s lese majeste procrastination

13 01 2012

At The Nation it is reported that the National Human Rights Commission “will take a stance on what to do with the lese-majeste law by the end of this year…”. That’s according to NHRC chairperson Amara Pongsapich.

NHRC head Amara Pongsapich and friend

As PPT has posted previously, Amara has strong links to Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda and her tenure as chair, coming to the position under the Abhisit Vejjajiva regime. Her tenure has been marked by a NHRC that has justified the use of force against protesters, failed on several issues related to migrants and refugees, has been compromised by its membership and has been criticized for lack of credentials and its initial statement on weak human rights.

That it should be stalling on lese majeste reform is about the least surprising announcement the NHRC chair could make.

Amara with CRES at an army base during the red shirt uprising in 2010 (Bangkok Post photo)

Certainly, Commisioner Niran Pitakwatchara has been singularly interested and relatively outspoken on lese majeste, and we recently posted on a NHRC working group “studying” lese majeste.

It isn’t just PPT that thinks that the NHRC has been negligent on lese majeste:

Asked by The Nation why the commission has been so slow to take a stance on the issue, and why the commission has managed to make a move now when it couldn’t months ago, Amara said: “We have not finished thinking it through. We’re still talking and studying so we can clarify our thoughts. We want to look at it from a human-rights dimension. We have moved slowly because we were reluctant. There’s nothing [more to it].”

If that wasn’t clear enough, she added:

We’ve just begun to make a move. The issue is very difficult, and we’ve been uncomfortable and unable to move. This is the first month that we’ve succeeded in clearly making a move….

Well, we all knew the NHRC was reluctant. But what an odd and silly claim from the chair of a national human rights body! Even these claims were only made in the face of critical questioning:

The commission met the press yesterday to report on its work last year. The issue of the lese-majeste law was conspicuously absent from the discussion, and only touched on in reply to questions after the presentation.

The report goes on to note that there have been many “petitions alleging human-rights violations in relation to lese-majeste charges and detentions were lodged with the independent [sic.] rights body last year.” Even before that the NHRC received petitions related to repression and seemed to ignore them. That included a September 2010 appeal by Somyos Prueksakasemsuk regarding censorship. Of course, Somyos was arrested as a lese majeste victim on 30 April 2011 and he remains incarcerated.

The rest of this report deserves attention as it points out how hopeless the NHRC has been. Part of the reason for this is that it is so compromised by its relations with the previous regime.

A Thai Rath cartoon of Amara's failures on rights abuses in the Army's crackdown at Rajaprasong

Is dialogue possible on human rights?

4 03 2011

PPT missed this about a week ago in the Bangkok Post. As is well-known, Thailand is currently undeserving chair of the U.N.’s 47-member Human Rights Council, and holds that position until June. According to the story, though, this doesn’t necessarily grant Thailand a free run.

The Post says this year will “be the first time Thailand comes under UNHRC peer pressure, with the country’s ‘Universal Periodical Review’ to be debated in October.” As part of this process, the Thai government “will present a 20-page human rights landscape while civil society including the National Human Rights Commission will present 10-page situation report.”

That might sound reasonable except for the important fact that the NHRC was appointed by the government and has been virtually silent on almost every serious abuse of human rights in Thailand under the Abhisit regime.

NHRC head Amara Pongsapich and friend

Hence, it is clear that civil society organizations working with the NHRC are either going to be tainted by association with this discredited agency or are going to be in conflict with it. Given that the Post lists several significant issues being taken up by NGOs – “the impunity of authorities in the far South and Bangkok violence, the plight of migrant workers and human rights defenders and freedom of expression as well as use of impeding laws such as the Internal Security Act,  lese majeste legislation (Article 112) and the Computer Crimes  Act,” PPT wonders how the NHRC can even have dialogue with NGOs unless they are handpicked to have a yellow hue.

Why the lese majeste law in Thailand is an abomination

3 03 2011

Giles Ji Ungpakorn has a new piece at Red Thai Socialist calling for the abolition of the lese majeste law:

The lese majeste law in Thailand represents a gross attack on the freedom of speech, freedom of expression and academic freedom. It is a fundamental attack on Democracy carried out by the Military, the Palace and the elites. The practical impact is that Thailand has struggled for years to achieve a fully developed democracy, a free press and internationally accepted academic standards in our universities.

Today, Da Torpedo, Red Eagle, Surachai Darnwattanan-nusorn (Sa-Darn) and many others are in prison in Thailand for merely expressing their beliefs in a peaceful way. In recent days arrest warrants have been issued for 5 more people and the police have a list of 30 more people who face arrest. Lese majeste prisoners are denied bail. The royalist judges claim that the offense is “too serious” and “a threat to national security”. Thai dictatorships have used the excuse that their opponents were seeking to “overthrow the Monarchy” in order to kill unarmed demonstrators in 1976 and 2010. Jail terms for lese majeste are draconian. Da is in prison for 18 years and prison conditions are appalling. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the web manager of the independent Prachatai newspaper faces 50 years in prison for not removing other peoples’ web-posts. A student faces lese majeste charges for not standing up for the King’s anthem in the cinema and the Military-backed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva tells lies about how he is committed to reforming the law. Abhisit and the army generals also tell lies about the deliberate state-ordered killings of unarmed protesters in May 2010.

In my particular case, my own university gave my anti-coup book to the police special branch, which resulted in a lese majeste prosecution against me. Imagine the impact on my fellow academics. This climate of fear creates poor quality academic work which avoids all important controversial issues and debates. This appalling tradition of educational mediocrity starts at primary school and works its way right to the top of the educational system. Students are encouraged to learn subjects parrot-fashion and write descriptive, one-sided essays. Academics refuse to engage in any debate, do not read work by those who do not agree with them and regard any academic arguments as personal attacks.

Professor Amara Ponsapich and the Thai National Human Rights Commission have disgraced themselves by remaining silent on lese majeste. At the same time they have defended the “right” of fascist PAD members to cause a war with Cambodia. Recently Amara warned the pro-democracy Red Shirts not to cause “trouble” with their protests. No such warning was ever given to the royalist mobs. NGO senator Rosana Tositakul told Red Shirt MPs to stop whining about the 90 deaths last year and to concentrate on the problems of inflation. Amnesty International has followed in the same path by defending the use of lese majeste. Academic hold seminars about why the lese majeste law “needs to be reformed”. But it cannot be reformed. It has to be abolished.

The Thai Monarchy is said to be “universally loved by all Thais”. This may have been the case in some periods of history, but it is no longer true. Many millions have turned against the Monarchy for appearing to condone the 2006 military coup and for saying nothing about the 90 deaths last year. This openly expressed hatred of the Monarchy is despite the climate of fear created by the lese majeste law, along side a manic promotion of the Monarchy. The King is said to be a genius in all fields. All statements by the Monarch are repeated as though they are the ultimate wisdom and he is referred to as “our father”. Photographs are circulated to “prove” that the King actually tied his own shoe-laces!! Many have made comparisons with North Korea. Now they are comparing Thailand to the Middle-Eastern dictatorships. Recently the head of the army claimed that Thailand was “nothing like Egypt”. If he really believed that, then why did he bother to make the public statement in the first place?

Another example of “Monarchy Mania” is the idea of “Sufficiency Economics”. Once the Monarch gave his blessing to the “Sufficiency Economy”, we were all supposed to accept it and praise it without question. The Sufficiency Economy is really a reactionary political ideology that teaches people to be happy with their present circumstances and to ignore the need for income redistribution. Luckily, this aspect of brain-washing has not worked very well in Thai society, for a society which cannot openly discuss economic and political policies will remain backward and under-developed. But the mere criticism of the Sufficiency Economy is enough to attract charges of lese majeste.

What is the aim of all this attempt at enforced idiocy among the population? It is a continuous attempt to keep the vast majority of Thai people in their place. We are encouraged to believe that the King is all powerful, when in fact he is a spineless willing tool of the Military. The Thai population are encouraged to believe that we live under an “ancient system of Monarchy”, a cross between a Sakdina, Absolute and Constitutional Monarchy system. People have to crawl on the ground in front of the King. But the true beneficiaries of this are the Military, the civilian conservative bureaucrats and the Democrat Party who are now in government.

The Military often claim that they are the “defenders of the Constitutional Monarchy”, yet the Thai Military has a long history of making un-constitutional coups. These are often “legitimised” by claiming to protect the Monarchy. The 19th September 2006 coup is a good example. The Military sought to legitimise themselves by referring to the Monarch. The lese majeste Law is thus used as a tool by the military to defend coups. The promotion of an image that the Monarchy is all powerful (an un-constitutional image), is part of this self-legitimisation by the military and other forces who are now in government. Lese majeste cases have multiplied since the Democrats were manoeuvred into government by the army in December 2008. It is now a central weapon to be used against all those who criticised the 2006 coup or those who oppose this military-installed government.

It is now an undeniable fact that this brain-washing campaign is falling apart. And it is falling apart at the very moment when the King is getting old and may soon die because he is so frail. If the King were ever loved and respected, the same cannot be said about his son. We know from Wikileaks that even the elites think the prince is a liability. The Military, the right-wing PAD protestors who closed the airports and the Democrat Party, have dragged the Monarchy into politics by claiming that the 2006 coup and violent actions by the PAD were supported or even directed by the Monarchy. It is now common to hear ordinary Thais complain that “the iguana and his wife” ordered the May 2010 killings. Royal legitimacy is all that the conservative authoritarians have and they are panicking because it is all unravelling. They have brought this on themselves.

We must not forget the plight of those jailed and killed on the pretext of defending the Monarchy. We must wage an international and national political campaign to defend democratic rights in Thailand and for the abolition of the lese majeste law. Without abolishing this law, we cannot have democracy in Thailand and without overthrowing the dictatorship we cannot abolish lese majeste.

Somyos and another chance for the NHRC

18 09 2010

PPT posted earlier this week about the censoring of Red Power magazine, edited by Somyos Prueksakasemsuk.  On 8 September, using the broad powers granted to him by the Emergency Decree, the governor of Nonthaburi ordered copies of the magazine to be seized and a current print run to be stopped.

On 15 September, as reported by Prachatai,  Somyos took action by filing a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission and asked them “to look into the case urgently to allow the companies to continue their business, to stop the government’s political bullying and media intimidation, and to protect democratic rights and freedoms.”

As PPT has blogged previously here and here, the NHRC has unevenly upheld human rights in recent months.  We hope that Amara Pongsapich and her fellow commissioners will do the right thing this time. In other words, we hope that they will  investigate censorship, stop the arbitrary harassment of publishers and uphold free speech. If they choose not to do so, we suggest a name change to the National Human Rights (of a select few) Commission.

How many are detained?

6 06 2010

At present it is impossible to know exactly how many people have been arrested under emergency rule maintained by the Abhisit Vejjajiva military-backed government. The reason for this is that government – at present, this essentially means the Centre for Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) – is seemingly reluctant to provide the names and details.

This unknown number of people are on all kinds of sometimes unspecified suspicions held by the army and government. The names of some of those held are known because the government has arranged for the courts to extend their detention. PPT has highlighted the cases of Suthachai Yimprasert (now released) and Somyos Prueksakasemsuk (who has had his detention extended three times, with no charges being laid), but how many more are there?

The Bangkok Post reports that a “group of academics nationwide was … mobilising support for Mr Somyot’s release…”. Importantly, the group is also calling for “more transparency by the CRES over the treatment of other detainees.” The group has called on the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to “investigate unjustified detention” and for an end to draconian emergency rule.

The Post reporters state that the NHRC “was supposed to be an independent agency and a mechanism for people who could not get justice” is a polite way of saying that the NHRC has been hopelessly inactive since being reconstituted under this government, being populated by royalists and compromised members.

The academics argue that: “Without strong and convincing evidence, arrests and detention under the special law only enhance the mistrust, fears and hatred among people, as was the case in history from 1970-80…”. They also called on “CRES to announce the names of arrestees and detainees relating to the red-shirted demonstrations…” and “appealed to the acting police chief to release the list of detainees and their whereabouts in all the provinces which were under the emergency decree blanket.”

Under all this pressure, NHRC chair Amara Pongsapich assigned commissioner Niran Pithakwatchara to “look into the complaints and controversy” surrounding CRES’s detention orders. Niran visited Somyos a the army camp where he is detained on the day that the government had the detention extended. Somyos denied he had violated the law. He also denied that he “had not formed a meeting of more than five people on 20 May (which was banned under the emergency law).”

PPT has serious doubts about the NHRC and its effectiveness. We’re not even sure that the NHRC even has the capacity to understand the significance of, and deal with difficult, human rights issues in a society that is divided by political conflict. Amara has been totally ineffective and compromised by her links to royalists and Privy Councilor Prem Tinsulanonda.

The website of the Central Bureau of Investigation, mentioned in the first Post article above, apparently says that there “were 99 arrests in Bangkok and the Central Region, but no names or detention venue were revealed.” There is no official information on detentions in other provincial areas. The academics believe that these (unknown) detainees cannot be contacted, cannot get legal advice and are having their rights abused.

Meanwhile, the politically-biased Department of Special Investigation (DSI) claims that “39 suspects are being detained on terrorism charges in connection with the anti-government rallies…”. It is seeking this week to arrest and detain without bail three more, each of them members of parliament on the same charges.

As PPT has pointed out several times, this authoritarian government, protected by the military and emergency rule, is essentially out of control.

AHRC on the new NHRC

20 08 2009

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has recently posted a commentary on a set of questions answered by Amara Pongsapich, the new chief of Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). As always, the AHRC is insightful.

Their criticism of the NHRC as well as the ASEAN human rights body is particularly sharp:

“Q. How will the Asean human rights mechanism and the National Human Rights Commission work?

A. There are some worries that the regional human rights body might not be strong enough. But I think we should have it first and shape it later. I don’t think there will be overlapping areas of work between the national human rights body and the Asean body, which should take up regional issues such as the Rohingya displaced people better than the NHRC.

AHRC comment: Naturally, a hard issue like the Rohingya refugees (as human rights commissioner it would not be right to call them refugees; better to say “displaced people”) will not be addressed through the NHRC because its approach is bureaucratic, soft and accommodating. Therefore, it will be left to the as-yet non-existent regional mechanism of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which also will do nothing. Here one of the real purposes of the ASEAN human rights body is clearly revealed for the first time: it is intended as a place for useless national human rights institutions to shift responsibilities and avoid blame coming to national authorities when people’s rights are not protected. This can be expected to happen a lot in the coming years, especially in cases coming from the meaningless and irrelevant National Human Rights Commission of Thailand.”

Read the entire AHRC document here: “New NHRC chief promises to ensure that human rights body is meaningless and irrelevant”

There is one question not answered that PPT would like an answer to: Will the NHRC take up lèse majesté cases as human rights cases, or not? If the answer is no, then what, precisely, is meant by ‘human rights’?

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