Opinion: Named and Shamed, Thailand Locked in Deep Denial

Photo: Harshil Shah / Flickr

Re•tention: Pravit RojanaphrukJuntaland earned another ignoble distinction last week when the United Nations named Thailand among 38 “shameful” nations that carry out reprisals or intimidate human rights defenders.

The government’s flat denial was not only unconvincing but came just before it banned a panel discussing justice for the Rohingya and just after it forced a television channel to punish its staff for displeasing the regime.

The listing came in an annual report released Sept. 13 by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. It included allegations of ill treatment, surveillance, criminalization and public campaigns targeting victims and human rights defenders.

The regime’s denial was met with disbelief and an insistence by a noted human rights activist that the current situation has hit a decade low.

“Human Rights Watch has been working in Thailand for a decade but it has been threatened most severely during the era of NCPO dictatorship,” wrote Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher for Thailand at Human Rights Watch on Facebook, Sept. 16, making a reference to the junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order.

Over the years since the coup, Sunai, himself a human rights defender, has been lamenting to this writer that the military regime keeps a close eye on him, asking him what he is up to every now and then.

Thailand joins China, Russia, Japan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan and in Southeast Asian, Myanmar and the Philippines in being named and shamed.

The UN report stated that there exists a “disturbing trend in the use of national security arguments and counter-terrorism strategies by states as justification for blocking access by communities and civil society organizations to the United Nations.”

In Bangkok, national security has been cited to infringe on free expression repeatedly. Three days before the report was published, police showed up at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand to demand it cancel a panel on what to do with the Burmese Generals who orchestrated the alleged genocide of the Rohingya. The words national security was conveniently cited to prevent people from publicly discuss a critical issue relating to neighboring Myanmar.

The club later put out a statement:

“In a letter ordering the FCCT to cancel the event, the Thai police stated that the discussion might be used by ‘third parties’ to cause unrest and endanger national security. There are no grounds whatever for such suspicions,” it read. “The club has regularly held orderly and informative panel discussions on current affairs over 62 years, and these have never led to any unrest or subversion.”

The statement said it was the sixth program they’ve been forced to cancel since the 2014 coup, adding that what happened “caused unnecessary further harm to the country’s already dented reputation for media freedom – Thailand was once one of the freest countries in Southeast Asia with a vibrant press.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Top universities such as Chulalongkorn and Thammasat have also been under similar surveillance and pressure. Some of their panels have been canceled over the past four years since under pressure from the regime. You have to imagine how many other universities may simply dare not host controversial discussions of critical issues relating Thailand or its troubled neighbors in order to be spared possible friction with the junta. This is how a self-censorship culture blossoms.

Back at the FCCT, the cancellations of the panel affected not just foreign and Thai journalists who wish to report about the issue but also FCCT members and the general public who planned to attend the event.

Barely a week had passed since the UN published its list of shame when Voice TV announced the suspension of two leading political news hosts and commentators. Virote Ali and Sirote Klampaiboon were removed for a month from a morning news program in order to appease the state TV regulator, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission, which acts as a censorship proxy by couching its actions as “regulation.”

It accused them of violating anti-bias regulations, the station said.

Biased or not, the media should have the right to choose whether they want to be partial or impartial. The irony is that while critical media such as Voice TV are punished, the pro-junta media never get accused of bias despite their incessant praise for the regime. Apparently, the only bad bias is being critical of the junta.

The list goes on.

Just last night “national security” was the absurd pretext to shut down a concert at a private venue because the punk musicians were likely to say things that weren’t nice about the junta and its leaders.

Apparently, the junta’s security has become national security.