BANGKOK – Human rights activists are urging Thailand’s military government to scrap a plan that would merge the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Ombudsman’s Office under the next constitution.
The move would "pave the way for further repression" at time when Thailand is already a "human rights disaster," the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a press release.
"Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission and Ombudsman serve very different purposes and shouldn’t be merged," said HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams. "Instead of making a weak human rights agency even weaker, the Constitution Drafting Committee should be seeking ways to ensure a broad-based, effective, and independent membership."
Yesterday, 30 Thailand-based rights groups submitted a petition urging the charter drafters to drop the merger proposal. The chairman of the CDC accepted the petition and promised to "deliberate" on the issue.
According to the CDC’s plan, the new agency would consist of 11 commissioners chosen by the Senate without public consultation. This closed selection process suggests that previous criticism concerning the independence of the NHRC has been ignored, Human Rights Watch said.
In a report issued on last December, the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions (ICC) questioned the impartiality and credibility of the NHRC, and recommended downgrading the body to a "B" status. The ICC report observed that the NHRC is composed only of "officials from a very small number of public institutions, with no clear representation, or a requirement for consultation with key stakeholder groups or civil society."
The NHRC has also been a target of criticism by anti-coup activists in Thailand, who accuse the commission of collaborating with the military junta that seized power on 22 May 2014. The NHRC’s responses to the junta’s suppression of civil liberties have paled in comparison to the strong language deployed by international human rights groups, who have described the human rights situation in post-coup Thailand as plunging into "free fall."
In a speech last December, NHRC director Amara Pongsapitchaya did not explicitly condemn the junta’s ongoing ban on political expression, only noting that anti-coup activists and the junta have different views on human rights.
"The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) thinks we have to sacrifice personal rights to protect the rights of all citizens, while the anti-coup faction believes personal rights and political rights cannot be infringed at all," Amara said.
Last week, the NHRC insisted on its independence and urged the charter drafters to scrap the merger plan.
"Merging the two agencies together may cause problems in the management and administration, because of their different natures," the NHRC said in a statement on 30 January. "The NHRC is an independent bureaucratic agency that is not attached to the administrative branch or any other side."
While many anti-coup activists in Thailand have also criticized the CDC’s plan to dissolve the human rights commission, others have applauded the move because of the current body’s failings.
"In its present form, it's better not to have the NHRC at all," Thanapol Eiwsakul, a long-time editor at a left-leaning magazine, posted on Facebook. "Before the 1997 Constitution, we managed to live our lives without the NHRC, too."
The CDC was appointed by the ruling junta last year to draft Thailand’s 20th charter, which is expected to be sent to the junta for approval by the end of 2015.
Sunai Phasuk, a Thailand-based coordinator at HRW, said he believes the merger proposal is an effort to reduce the accountability of state power.
"It fits with the imposition of martial law in the past eight months by the government, who refuses to be scrutinized or be held responsible for its exercises of power," Sunai told Khaosod. "This is a dangerous sign for Thailand. This country may keep steering away from democratic rule in the future."