Human Rights Defenders in Thailand
There has been a noticeable decline in the security of human rights defenders in Thailand since Prime Minister Thaksin came to power in 2001. More than 20 defenders have been killed or disappeared. Many were rural environmental activists who challenged businesses, officials, or other local elites.
In March 2004 one of Thailand’s leading human rights lawyers, Somchai Neelaphaijit, was abducted by a group of men in Bangkok and never seen again. He had just filed a complaint alleging that police had tortured several of his clients. Five policemen were soon arrested, but the police force was allowed to investigate its own members. As a result they were charged only with robbery and coercion, and four of the defendants were acquitted due to lack of evidence. One defendant received three years for coercion. Government officials have pledged that a new inquiry will lead to murder charges in 2006, but similar promises have been made in the past.
The Special Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, Hina Jilani, visited Thailand in 2003. She expressed alarm over deteriorating human rights conditions and noted with concern statements by government officials attacking NGOs, and human rights advocates.
The Violence in the South
After a lull in separatist activity in the heavily Muslim southern provinces since the late 1980s, a new wave of violence began with a January 4, 2004 attack on an army depot. The January attack was followed by the announcement of martial law in the southern provinces and a wave of arrests, including the detainees who became Somchai’s clients. In August 2003, the Thai government adopted counterterrorism decrees that broadened the scope for the use of protracted detention without charge or trial. Another decree in July 2005 expanded the government’s authority to declare martial law and further undermined human rights protections of detainees. There is a real danger that the heavy-handed response to discontent in the south is only exacerbating dissatisfaction in the region and fueling more violence.
The Thai authorities have characterized the worsening conflict in southern Thailand as a product of either criminal gangs or terrorism, and have justified their actions as legitimate national security measures. Human rights activists, like Somchai, who have sought to defend apparent victims of governmental repression, have been criticized as terrorist sympathizers.