The monarchy, freedom and democracy

1 05 2013

The US Department of State has released its Human Rights Report for 2012. PPT was alerted to this by a story at the Bangkok Post that referred to this report as “a highly critical report detailing … Thailand’s human rights failings.” It added that: “Observers noted this year’s report was more rounded and detailed, especially regarding the southern insurgency.”

Indeed, on our first skim of the report, released a week ago, it does seem somewhat better than its somewhat bland and repetitive reports of recent years. PPT has been especially critical of the State Department’s reports for their failure on lese majeste and the existence of political prisoners. Indeed, last year we commented on a:

hopelessly, probably deliberately, deceitful U.S. “human rights” report for Thailand in 2011. If it wasn’t deliberately deceitful, then we imagine that everyone on the Thailand desk at the Department of State and in the Embassy in Bangkok has been lobotomized to the extent that they are deaf, dumb and blind on lese majeste and other political prisoners in Thailand.

This year there is a change. As in previous years, there are useful comments on a range of issues including officials’ impunity, the use of emergency and other special laws and a range of abuses by security forces and local defence volunteers in the south. That list is disturbing reading. As the Post has it:

Security forces, the report said, were guilty of using excessive force, including killing, torturing and otherwise abusing suspects, detainees and prisoners.

PPT wants to highlight some of the report’s comments on politics, monarchy, lese majeste and political prisoners, which we think represents an attempt to break out of the previous genuflecting to the royalist propagandists and flunkies who have previously shaped American official discourses on Thailand. We will just quote and highlight (with some of the headings added by us):

Red shirts: According to an advocacy group, as of December, 16 protesters jailed after the 2010 United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD or “Red Shirts”) protests remained in pretrial detention, charged with protest-related crimes such as rioting and arson. Lawyers affiliated with the UDD movement continued to pursue bail for these remaining detainees held in several provinces. According to a UDD-affiliated information center, of the 1,857 arrests related to the 2010 protests, authorities prosecuted 1,664 individuals as of December, and the courts dismissed 91 cases, sentenced 850 individuals to probation and/or fines, and imprisoned 220 for less than one year, 63 for one to three years, 10 for three to five years, 10 for five to 10 years, and 27 for more than 10 years. According to the Department of Special Investigations, of the 270 protest-related cases under its jurisdiction, it completed 216 investigations as of December, and trials in 62 cases continued at year’s end.

Lese majeste: A July 10 royal pardon allowed the release of dual-national Joe Gordon (also known as Lerpong Wichaikhammat), who was sentenced in December 2011 to two and one-half years’ in prison for lese-majeste offenses. On August 16, a mass pardon in honor of the birthdays of the crown prince (July 28) and the queen (August 12) led to the release of approximately 30,000 prisoners. On August 24, in honor of the queen’s birthday, Suchart Narkbangsai and Suriyan Kokpuai, who were both serving three-year sentences for lese-majeste convictions, received royal pardons and were released.

PPT isn’t quite sure how releasing lese majeste convicts a bit early is an “honor” for the anyone. Thailand’s royals should be ashamed – not honored – that this feudal law remains in place; they could easily have it done away with if they had sufficient honor.

Trials: While most trials are public, the court may order a closed trial, particularly in cases involving national security, the royal family, children, or sexual abuse.

PPT can’t help but wonder why the State Department didn’t point out that closing courts infringes Section 40 of the current constitution. In other words, a court may close its proceedings but in doing so is infringing Thailand’s basic law.

Political Prisoners and Detainees: There were no government reports of political prisoners or detainees; however, sources estimated that seven to 18 persons remained detained under lese-majeste laws that outlaw criticism of the monarchy…. Some of those cases involved persons exercising their rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

While this statement is something of a step forward for the State Department, it still makes serious errors. For example, the claim that there are no government reports of political prisoners is simply a stupid claim. After all, the government has established a special prison for political prisoners at Laksi. Indeed, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra mentioned political prisoners in a speech this week.

Freedom of Speech and Press: The international and independent media operated freely, except in coverage of matters deemed a threat to national security or offensive to the monarchy…. Journalists generally were free to comment on government activities and institutions without fear of official reprisal. Nonetheless, they occasionally practiced self-censorship, particularly with regard to the monarchy and national security. For example, in April the Thai distributor of The Economist magazine withheld one issue because of a story about lese-majeste prosecutions…. The government imposed some restrictions on access to the Internet and reportedly monitored Internet chat rooms and social media without judicial oversight. Individuals and groups generally engaged in the peaceful expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail, although there were several limitations on content, such as lese majeste, pornography, and gambling…. The RTP Electronic Crime Suppression Division reported receiving 776 computer-related complaints during 2011 that resulted in 442 investigations–a complaint rate markedly greater than the 47 in 2009 or 285 in 2010. Most cases involved alleged defamation, lese majeste, and illegal activity such as gambling and pornography. Separately, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology operated the Cyber Security Operations Center to monitor and block Web sites. According to a report by the NGO iLaw, court orders officially blocked nearly 21,000 Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) during the year, 80 percent of which were related to lese majeste. Since passage of the 2007 Computer Crime Act, authorities blocked more than 102,000 URLs, 76 percent related to lese majeste.

From this list it is crystal clear that the major impediment to free speech is the monarchy, lese majeste and national security. Indeed, “national security” is usually defined n terms of the monarchy as well. Can it be said that, apart from the monarchy, Thailand is relatively free? It certainly seems that way.

And finally, this: The constitution provides citizens the right to change their government peacefully through periodic, free, and fair elections based on universal, compulsory suffrage.

How true is this? Yes, there are periodic elections, but there are also periodic military and judicial coups…. More to the point, Section 68 of the constitution effectively makes it illegal to advocate for a republic in Thailand. Again, the monarchy is an obstacle to full democratic freedoms.

Achara interviews Joe Gordon

10 11 2012

Achara Ashayagachat at the Bangkok Post has joined those interviewing lese majeste victim Joe Gordon as he returns home to the United States. This level of critical comment by one who has been convicted and released is unusual, and PPT hopes Joe eventually writes up his experience.

Joe again talks about The King Never Smiles. (It seems that the Post is unable to mention the book’s title.) He says he “did buy the book from a bookstore. It was published by Yale University Press and was written in an academic style.” He adds that reading it and posting links to it and unauthorized translations was his right and that he was a “victim of polarised Thai politics. I was in Thailand for health reasons but was dragged into dirty politics.”

A Bangkok Post photo

On prison, he states: “Prison conditions were far beyond being acceptable.”

On repeated refusals of bail for lese majeste inmates: “Without bail, the accused are never able to defend themselves well.”

On the lese majeste law: “It’s a shame that this government doesn’t dare to touch on the controversial aspects. I truly support the Nitirat group in its push for for the amendment [of the law], although I think what we really need is its abolition…. The law is used by conservatives to destroy the progressives.”

On the U.S., lese majeste and his case: “I was dismayed that the US issued a mild statement when I was convicted in December…”. PPT agrees that the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Embassy and Ambassador Kristie Kenney should be ashamed; they were spineless.

Finally, Joe notes that the “lese majeste law has shown its effect in sabotaging the institution of the monarchy rather than fostering and protecting it.” PPT understands this point but also views lese majeste as a part of the foundation of the repressive royalist state.

US and UK governments and lese majeste

28 05 2012

It has long been known that the Government of the United States couldn’t care less about lese majeste in Thailand. Not even when one of their own – Joe Gordon – is incarcerated for totally legal actions in the Unites States does the government get off its lazy, politicized and collective posterior and do or say anything principled.

PPT has posted on the recently published but hopelessly, probably deliberately, deceitful U.S. “human rights” report for Thailand in 2011. If it wasn’t deliberately deceitful, then we imagine that everyone on the Thailand desk at the Department of State and in the Embassy in Bangkok has been lobotomized to the extent that they are deaf, dumb and blind on lese majeste and other political prisoners in Thailand.

A reader points out a useful story at IPS News reflecting on the hopelessly unprincipled and contradictory approach to human rights by the U.S. The rport coincides with the release of the annual human rights reports.

The report quotes the head of Amnesty International’s Washington office who criticizes the U.S. for “selectively champion[ing] freedom and human rights when convenient…”. PPT entirely agrees.

Of course, we also wonder what AI does about its own selectivity on lese majeste in Thailand. What they criticize for the U.S. government has long been characteristic of AI Thailand’s selectivity and Benjamin Zawacki’s unprincipled position on lese majeste.

As the IPS story makes plain, the State Department has explained its unprincipled actions in terms of President Barack Obama’s “theory” of “principled engagement”, where human rights are contingent, limited and inconsistently prioritized.

All of that says quite a lot about lese majeste and political prisoners in Thailand. They are ignored because other interests – economic, military, ideological – hold sway.

But what about the Government of the U.K.? Readers may recall that a week or so ago, we briefly mentioned questions posed regarding lese majeste and political prisoners by the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kerry McCarthy Labour MP. The responses are instructive. Here they are:

Q. 1: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations he has made to the Government of Thailand on the imprisonment and death of Ampon Tangnoppakul.

A. 1, by Jeremy Browne (Minister of State for South East Asia/Far East, Caribbean, Central/South America, Australasia and Pacific, Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Taunton Deane, Liberal Democrat):  In November 2011, following the sentencing of Ampon Tangnoppakul, the UK issued a statement jointly with our European Union partners to express concern about the court decision to convict and imprison Ampon for 20 years. The statement reiterated the importance attached by the EU to the rule of law, democracy and respect for human rights. The EU also urged the Thai authorities to ensure that the rule of law was applied in a non-discriminatory and proportional manner consistent with upholding basic human rights, including freedom of expression.

PPT: This is essentially a non-response, and completely ignores the question related to Ampol’s death in custody. As weak as this is, at least “concern” has been expressed.

Q. 2: … what recent assessment his Department has made of access to health care for prisoners in Thailand.

A. 2: Conditions in Thai prisons are generally poor. Prisons are old and often have run down infrastructure. However, basic medical treatment is available in all prisons in Thailand and prisoners may be transferred to a local hospital for more complex medical treatment.

As part of our consular responsibilities, embassy staff in Thailand visit British detainees every eight weeks. These visits are carried out by trained consular staff, who check the welfare of detainees. Any issues of concern can be then brought to the attention of the prison authorities, including any medical or dental problems a detainee might have.

PPT: This is essentially a non-response. At least conditions are described as “poor,” but then any visitor to a prison recognizes this within seconds, so not great insight. There seems no idea of how many prisoners die while incarcerated or of the actual availability of medical care to prisoners. The rampant corruption of prisons is not mentioned. Lese majeste detainee Darunee Charnchoensilpakul has been waiting some 4 years for proper dental treatment. Ampol died while in a prison “hospital.”

Q. 3: … what assessment his Department has made of the treatment of people (a) arrested and (b) convicted under lèse majesté laws in Thailand.

A. 3: The UK attaches great importance to human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right of every human being. We are closely following the development of freedom of expression in Thailand and are concerned by the significant increase of lese-majeste cases in the country and the application of the laws and length of sentences in recent cases.

With our European Union partners, the UK expressed concern last year at the conviction and imprisonment for 20 years of Ampon Tangnoppakul for violating the lese-majeste laws.

Our embassy in Bangkok continues to monitor the ongoing trials of high profile lese-majeste and freedom of expression on the internet cases. We have urged the Thai Government to ensure that the rule of law is applied in a non-discriminatory and proportionate manner consistent with upholding basic human rights, and will continue to take appropriate opportunities to do so.

During my visit to Thailand in 2010, I raised the issue of conditions for detainees in Thailand, referring specifically to the importance of access to exercise, proper food and medical facilities.

PPT: This is more like a real answer. Yes, the trite human rights response is repeated, but Browne indicates that there is concern for the development of freedom of expression in Thailand, about the large increase of lese majeste cases and the length of sentences. That the Embassy monitors trials is presumably useful. His representations on the conditions of detainees apparently had no impact at all.

Q. 4: … what assessment his [Browne’s] Department has made of the compliance of lèse majesté laws in Thailand with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and what representations he has made to the government of Thailand on freedom of expression and the lèse majesté laws.

A. 4: We understand the particular reverence the people of Thailand have for the monarchy. The Government attaches importance to the respect of fundamental human rights in line with the universal declaration of human rights. Specifically on article 19 which covers freedom of opinion and expression, the UK thinks that it should be possible to discuss constitutional reform without fear of coming under the purvue of laws that were designed for non political purposes. In October 2011 at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the human rights situation in Thailand was reviewed as part of the Universal Periodic Review process. The UK played an active role, including raising our concerns about freedom of expression and specifically recommending that the Thai Government seek to review its lese-majeste laws. The report of this session can be found online at the following link:

Our ambassador in Bangkok has raised the issue of freedom of expression with the Thai authorities. I also raised the issue when I visited Thailand in September 2011. We will continue to take appropriate opportunities to do so.

PPT: A reasonable answer suggestive of the U.K. Government being concerned about the suppression of discussion of constitutional matters, including the position and role of the monarchy.

While the answers do sound like the usual parliamentary careful responses, if they are compared with the pathetic U.S. human rights report “there are no political prisoners” nonsense, then the U.K. response is downright explosive.

PPT can’t help thinking that readers can bring pressure on their local and national politicians to ask more questions of Thailand’s government and embassies about these issues. We have some links that readers might find useful here.

Why is the truth unacceptable?

25 05 2012

In a recent post PPT focused on the most recent human rights report by the U.S. Department of State that made a case that there was not a single political prisoner in Thailand in 2011. This claim is made about a period when PPT would estimate that there were more than 300 political prisoners in the country. As we mentioned in that post, this claim by the United States is even contradicted by the Thai state.

Why is it that the United States cannot deal with (political) truth in Thailand? One reason is that Thailand is a major ally, and has been for a very long time. We know that the U.S. state is not as critical of major allies as it is of declared enemies. Hence, the Unites States can work hard to get an anti-abortion activist out of China, while Joe Gordon, a U.S. citizen convicted as a lese majeste political prisoner for alleged acts that were legal and carried out in Colorado, is left to rot in a Thai jail. In other words, the U.S. has not principled human rights position.

But the issue of truth and the inability to accept it is also evident in Thailand. The impunity enjoyed by state officials in murdering citizens is one cruel manifestation of this.

Another example of not being able to deal with the truth was seen at the time that the Abhisit Vejjajiva regime was cracking down on red shirt protesters in 2010, killing and injuring many. At the time, ultra-royalists organized a campaign against foreign correspondents for telling the world what was really happening. One example of a campaign is seen here. These complaints were rewarded with the support of Queen Sirikit.

Ironically, the silliest and least serious but probably the most publicized story – to 24 million on Twitter – on the failure to accept truth in Thailand comes from the Lady Gaga visit.  The singer said what everyone knows: fake Rolex watches (and every other brand one can think of) are sold on Bangkok’s streets.

Te predictable response from ultra-nationalists is that speaking the truth is a dastardly action. The Telegraph reports on the pathetic reaction:

Now she is stirring nationalist fervour in Thailand, where people tend to get upset when the country’s seedy underworld is highlighted by outsiders.

“We are more civilised than you think,” tweeted Thai DJ Surahit Siamwalla, who has a ticket to Friday’s show in Bangkok but said he plans to boycott.

“She came to our home, but instead of admiring us she insulted us,” said a commentator on popular Thai web board

So the truth is unspeakable, even on illegal knock-offs by a pop star. Imagine if Lady Gaga had said the king was a powerful political figure who has been actively engaged in ousting elected governments. She’d be in jail.

We at PPT imagine that she’ll need to tweet something pro-monarchist so those who feel their house has been slandered by the truth at least feel that the “father” is respected.

The truth really cannot be spoken. Many prefer to hear and purvey lies and fantasies.

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.