Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ended her recent week-long trip through Asia in Thailand. She met with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in Bangkok, and then concluded her trip with attendance at the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phuket. Her mantra throughout the week – “The United States is Back” – seemed intended to mark a sharp break between U.S. policy in Asia under former President Bush and the policy she intends to craft with President Obama. But it will take more than a declaration to reverse the effects of eight years of the Bush’s so-called “War on Terror” and disregard for human rights in Southeast Asia. Most disconcerting, Clinton’s willing silence on these issues in Thailand suggests that perhaps what is back is U.S. complicity in state-sponsored repression.
Instead of silence, a series of pointed questions to Prime Minister Abhisit would have indicated a U.S. commitment to an end to impunity and a return to accountability:
1. Will Thailand release the national security detainees and others being arbitrary detained in southern Thailand? Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat – the southern border provinces of Thailand – were placed under martial law in January 2004, and have been under emergency rule since July 2005. The central Thai state has offered rising Islamic insurgency as the explanation for the abrogation of rights under martial law, and then the intensification of repression under emergency rule. Since 2004, thousands of people have been arrested. Martial law permits detention for seven days before charges need to be brought against someone being held suspected of threatening national security, and the emergency decree adds another thirty days before charges need to be brought. Detainees do not have access to lawyers during the initial 37-day period of detention. The International Crisis Group has noted that during the first seven days, detainees are often held in temporary sites of detention and cannot see family members or other visitors, which means that the risk of torture is greatest during this period. Some of those arrested have been extralegally detained, re-educated, and released without ever passing through a court and others have been charged with crimes of national security under the Criminal Code. For those who become national security detainees, an additional eighty-four days of detention are possible before they must be charged with a crime. National security cases move very slowly through the judicial system, with months of detention possible between court hearings.
2. Will Thailand stop the use of the torture and honor its commitments as a ratifier of the UN Convention Against Torture? Thailand ratified the UN Convention Against Torture on 2 December 2007. Yet in January 2009, Amnesty International reported that state forces in southern Thailand systematically use torture against civilians. The most notable is the case of Imam Yapa Kaseng, who was arrested as a suspected insurgent in Narathiwat province on 19 March 2008. Imam Yapa died on 21 March 2008 from wounds inflicted from being tortured while interrogated. The autopsy ruled that he died from “blunt force trauma.” The military officers who carried out the torture that killed Imam Yapa have not been held accountable.
3. Will Thailand continue using the lèse majesté law (Article 112 of the Criminal Code) and the Computer Crimes Act of 2007 to censor speech and repress dissent? Clinton called for the immediate release of imprisoned Burmese Nobel laureate and leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, but left unspoken the names of Suwicha Thakor and others imprisoned or accused of lèse majesté in Thailand. While the lèse majesté law – which prohibits any speech critical of the royal institution and allows any citizen to make a complaint – has been in existence for many years, its use has been stepped up in the last year. In April 2009, Suwicha Thakor was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for allegedly posting YouTube clips insulting to King Bhumipol, Thailand’s 82-year-old monarch. Chotisak Onsoong, a young activist, has been charged with lèse majesté for not standing up during the royal anthem before a film. Journalists and web editors have been accused of the crime for their words, or their refusal to censor other’s words.
Or Secretary Clinton and the Obama administration can choose silence. As Clinton was at pains to mention while in Bangkok last week, the United States and Thailand have had a cordial relationship for over 175 years. During the Vietnam War, Thailand was the closest ally of the United States, providing soldiers, space for military bases, and the pleasures of R and R. In the past thirty years, Thailand has remained a major economic and security partner of the United States, most recently providing space for a controversial CIA black site prison. Why jeopardize the relationship by raising thorny issues of human rights and violence? The answer is simple: because people’s lives are at stake.