‘Hopeful but Not Optimistic,’ Longtime Rights Defender Leaves Thailand

Sam Zarifi of the International Commission of Jurists with pad thai poor in quality but rich in meaning on a recent afternoon in Bangkok.

BANGKOK — Thaksin Shinawatra and Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha are divisive figures perched on opposite edges of a deeply divided country. If Thaksin is good, then Prayuth is anathema, and vice versa. The difference depends on individuals’ political inclinations. Not quite for Sam Zarifi, outgoing regional director for Asia and Oceania of the International Commission of Jurists, or ICJ.

After spending five years in Bangkok and many more observing Thailand before that, the 48-year-old Iranian-American ended his tenure in Thailand one week ago Friday and is on his way to assume the top post as ICJ’s secretary general in Geneva, Switzerland. Not without a few parting words, however.

Perhaps being a foreigner and a human rights defender means Zarifi could keep a distance and be critical of both Thaksin and Prayuth. His story of Thailand’s failures in protecting human rights and the rule of law reads like this:

“Thaksin was a dangerous figure. He had authoritarian tendencies. He moved to weaken the press and institutions like the judiciary,” the 48 year old said between mouthfuls of pad thai at a fashionable bistro in Bangkok’s Ari neighborhood, where the ICJ’s regional office is located.

The past decade saw Thailand confronting a clear fork on the road, the soft-spoken Zarifi said in faintly accented American English, a result from his migration from his birthplace of Tehran, Iran, to the US at the age of 15.

“So in the Thaksin years, it was very disappointing. A lot of our Thai colleagues really defended Thaksin,” said Zarifi, who was then with Human Rights Watch, where he served as deputy regional director from 2000 to 2008, followed by a four-year stint at Amnesty International.

Taking a break from the overpriced noodles, Zarifi cited Thaksin’s war on drugs which saw the illegal killing – “extrajudicial” being the preferred legal term – of what’s estimated to be more than 2,500 suspects and bystanders, similar to that presently underway in the Philipinnes under strongman President Rodrigo Duterte.

Zarifi recalled a Thai colleague defending the Thaksin policy, saying, “Look! Either these guys deserved it, or Thailand wants a strong man.”

“Our argument was, look, he was weakening the institutions,” said Zarifi, whose degrees include a Juris Doctor from Cornell Law School and another post-graduate degree in Public International Law from the New York University School of Law.

Then the color-shirt politics arrived, followed by military intervention in 2006 to oust Thaksin.

Zarifi recalled a Thai friend’s words:

“This is great because the military got rid of the bad guy!”

But to Zarifi, it was just more damage to the institutions.

“Since then, we have ongoing weakening of the institutions. More than 10 years of political paralysis,” he said.

His attention soon returned to his pad thai to provide an analogy.

“The pad thai was unnecessary westernized,” said Zarifi, who claims to know where to find the best street version.

Human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Thailand, he said, aped the worst of the West while maintaining the worst of the East, and like the fashionable bistro’s pad thai, “wouldn’t satisfy the Thais but wouldn’t satisfy Westerners, either.”

Has Zarifi lost all hope for the kingdom after a decade of protracted conflict with no end in sight?

“I want to be clear. I am hopeful but not optimistic. There are pockets of common sense and decency, especially among younger generations,” he said.

But the military regime of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has, since the 2014 coup, committed “completely unnecessary human rights violations” including suppressing free speech, free assembly and due process in the civilian justice system.

“There was no reason for [all] that… I don’t accept any excuse from the military government to not provide accountability,” he said, adding that junta leader Gen. Prayuth’s absolute power under Article 44 of the military provisional constitution is the opposite of accountability.

Zarifi’s concerns were precisely worded in the ICJ’s joint report with Thai Lawyers for Human Rights that was submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee earlier this month.

It detailed Thailand’s failures to uphold its civil and political rights obligations.

The report elaborated on the problem of absolute power under Article 44, stating that:

“As with general NCPO orders and announcements, Thai courts have refused to review the legality and constitutionality of orders issued under Article 44.”

In broad brushstrokes, the report summarized the usurpation of power since the May 2014 coup:

“The Thai military… progressively replaced civilian power with military rule including by: implementing Martial Law throughout the country, … dissolving the civilian government; suspending the 2007 Constitution (except for the Chapter that deals with the Monarchy and replacing it with an interim Constitution that give the military ultimate power over the country; providing enhanced criminal investigation powers to military officers; and extending the jurisdiction of military courts to civilians for certain offences.

“On 22 July 2014, the NCPO promulgated an interim Constitution, giving the NCPO sweeping, unchecked powers inconsistent with the fundamental pillars of the rule of law, the separation of powers and human rights, including equality, accountability, and predictability of the law…”

Yet Zarifi maintains some hope.

“I think what I have hoped is when the government faces pressure internally and externally, it does respond. But it doesn’t have discipline to control its worse behaviors,” he said, citing failures to resolve cases of forced disappearance and violence in the Deep South.

For all that is wrong with Thailand, the man soon to head an organization dedicated to the worldwide implementation of law and human rights, pointed out the limits on Thailand capturing international attention.

“One of the things that’s different is that the whole world has taken a turn for the dark that Thailand’s problems have been eclipsed,” he said.