[Note: This article was written in November 2009 but the author was advised to put it away to avoid backlashes from the influential human rights organizations. Such would be unhelpful to the struggle for democracy in Thailand. As the final violent crackdown in Thailand is imminent, the author believes that the human right groups must be held responsible for the tragedy as well. Although the article focuses on the lese majeste issue, the betrayal of the human rights mandarins is a significant part of the political crisis in Thailand too. The author does not use his real name to avoid the attention and personal attacks. The discussion should focus entirely on the substance of the article. Translation, duplicates, and references to this article can be done freely without permission.]
The controversy over Thailand’s Lese Majeste (LM) law, its questionable process and its abuses, have been going on for some years. Have the human rights (HR) groups in Thailand done enough? Have they taken any significant action? Have we heard anything from Amnesty International (AI) or Human Rights Watch (HRW) regarding this issue?
Apart from a mild intervention from AI that the trial for “Da Torpedo” should not be held in secrecy, they have not done anything for any victims. Their relative silence is astounding.
The purpose of this article is to raise questions to the leaders of HR organizations in Thailand and of major international ones. I argue that the silence of the international HR groups closely ties to the betrayal of Thai HR leaders. My comments are based on numerous communications with them myself and information gathered from many other people who have made similar inquiries to them in recent years.
Let me make it clear up front that the Asian Human Rights Commission and its affiliates have been bright stars in this dark sky.The failure of HR leaders in Thailand
Despite their admirable work for years in many areas including the conflict in the South and Burma-related issues, the HR leaders in Thailand have failed miserably in dealing with the national political conflict. Thaksin’s disregard of any HR whatsoever and its atrocious results plus his demagoguery led to intense hatred of him among HR people. The HR leaders and groups, including the AI-Bangkok chapter at the time, actively and overtly supported the People Alliance for Democracy (PAD). They were determined to help bring down the legitimate, elected regime at any cost including at the expense of democratic process.
Many Thai HR leaders unashamedly supported of the 2006 royalist coup. Some joined the junta’s propaganda teams going around the world to justify the coup by arguing that Thailand could have fallen into the abyss had Thaksin remained in power. HR leaders became the best ambassadors for the coup to justify the royalist anti-democracy.
During the past few years, HR leaders and well known HR lawyers dedicated themselves to the PAD cause including representing the PAD militants who stormed the NBT broadcast headquarter with weapons, and defending the obviously armed PAD demonstrations. Meanwhile they refused even to offer service to the family of Narongsak Kobthaisong, who was killed at a demonstration against the PAD in August 2007. (One of the HR leaders said to me that Narongsak’s family should have the ability to find a lawyer by themselves.) The biases and partiality also overwhelm the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). These HR leaders and the NHRC charged the police for violent actions against the PAD on Oct 7, 2008, but turned a blind eye to provided excuses for many blatantly violent acts by the PAD. On the other hand, they supported the Emergency Decree and even called for the current government to suppress the “Red” demonstration in April 2009 to restore peace and order. There are many more disputable and downright ugly examples of partiality than I can recount here.
As the LM law has become part of political mess, Thai HR leaders have so far been silent on the LM issues. They are silent on its abuses and on the efforts to reform the law. They are silent on recent arrests, trials and unjust punishment for LM and for computer crimes. HR leaders and lawyers who in years past defended victims of the LM law in public do not do so in these cases. (The only exception is Sulak Sivaraksa who believes that he was victim of the pro-Thaksin police.) A few cases are taken care of by young HR lawyers, while other victims are left on their own. Thanks to their political partiality, Thai HR leaders no longer consider LM law a HR issue or an important one. One of the NHRC member said that the LM issue is not as important as sufferings of the poor or the crisis in the south. This is the emerging discourse among Thai HR leaders to justify their silence on LM. More reasons below.
The bottom line is that the “double standard” is rampant not only in the country’s mainstream media and the judiciary but also in the entire HR movement. They help institutionalizing the “injustice” political system. Ironically, this condition of injustice and its consequences are comparable to the widespread injustice in the South that they try to end. Instead of standing firm on the principle of impartiality (“justice must be blind”), they choose sides and are blind to justice.
The organizational culture of these HR groups and Thai NGOs in general contributes to this failure. Similar to most public and private organizations including the media and academy, the HR movement is dominated by a few HR czars. Patronage, hierarchical deference and obedience, recruitments and promotions of like-minded people, concerns about unity, and utmost care for reputation and face-saving, are prevalent. The failure to stand firm on HR principles and impartiality, unsurprisingly, was not addressed within the movement, let alone challenged or confronted. Instead, they dismissed criticism as noises from the “outsiders” who don’t understand HR works and how dedicated and selfless they are. Some of them said critics “only speak and write, but do nothing else.” Besides, they said, criticism undermines the spirit of the HR activists. Criticisms from inside the movement by junior activists have to be done with utmost care, out of reverence, insecurity, and “for the sake of the HR movement as a whole”.
Encounters with the international HR mandarins
It was too little too late, long after damages were done, for AI-London to reprimand the Director of AI-Thailand for his violation of the AI protocol that prohibits a chapter from participating in domestic politics. Apart from only a few negligible statements, AI and HRW were primarily silent. Even when the LM issues were increasing, they remained silent. Why?
All explanations I have learned directly (through several communications in 2008 and early 2009) and indirectly from AI and HRW people are deeply disturbing. They are so sloppy and easily dismissible. They hint at larger questions concerning the major international HR organizations. Here are reasons from the AI and HRW people I have learned so far.
The most typical answer from AI and HRW people since 2008 was the same as reported by Marwaan Macan-Markar, 31 Aug 2009.
We have felt that working in a more private capacity than in a public way is the most appropriate and the most effective response on the lese majeste issue to date,” says Benjamin Zawacki, South-east Asia researcher for AI who is based in Bangkok.
I do not know what “private capacity” means for battling the law and for every single case but not any case in particular. Does a private capacity only seek a pardon for people who repent? Does it mean selective help only to prominent cases? If so, what about the HR principles? What about the LM law that spreads fear and legalizes suppression? Is a private capacity extended to recent LM victims, most of whom are against the 2006 coup and the PAD? How much do Thai and international HR groups care about these prisoners of conscience?
Above all, the increasing number of charges, arrests, and outrageous outcomes in recent time, and the increasingly wicked uses of the law are evidence that if there was such a private capacity, it has failed.
Is this reason purely a sham excuse?
It should be noted that this was exactly the same answer Thai HR leaders and one NHRC commissioner gave when asked what they do on LM cases, long before the AI and HRW people gave. Who’s copying from whom? Are Thai HR leaders getting this line from their international mandarins or do the latter have a blind trust in the former? Or do both say the same repeatedly to one another until it becomes a sort of “party line” among HR mandarins?
For Thailand, HR = Hierarchical Regime
Another reason is that in the views of the HR mandarins, the LM law is not a violation of HR principles or freedom of expression. Its violator is therefore not a prisoner of conscience (POC). Reason: the LM law, like a defamation law, protects the king from unfair and untruthful damages. Zawacki, again, hints at this view, and more.
“But you have an institution here that has played an important role in the protection of human rights in Thailand. … We can see why the monarchy needs to be protected,” (from the same report by Marwaan Macan-Markar).
In this view, not only is the LM law unquestionable, but the Thai monarchy turns out to be a HR protector. Probably due to this view, the only intervention from AI was for the proper process (no secrecy), but the law itself and how it is used are measures to protect the Supreme HR Protector in the land. This view, it should be noted, has been put forward for years by the royalist establishment in Thailand and by some Thai HR leaders during this political conflict.
Instead of standing firm on the HR principles and refusing to take sides in Thailand’s political polarization, AI does the same as Thai HR czars imposing its brand of righteousness in deciding that the royalists are necessary for Thailand. Please read this letter from an AI in Germany. This amounts to saying AI is willing to ignore HR violations by one regime in order to prevent another one (Thaksin) that the HR mandarins do not approve. AI’s taking side is a very dangerous practice. It is harmful to the HR cause in short and long terms. It is wrong in principle.
AI’s understandings of Thailand’s politics and history are horrible! For example, AI assumes that the criticisms of the LM law are made by the pro-Thaksin people! To put blame solely on Thaksin for the conflict in the Deep South also shows their utmost ignorance of the problem. Please note, again, that these views are the same as from Thai HR leaders. The international HR mandarins do not care or are not capable of learning beyond the superficial news, the royalist views of Thai history and politics, and the bias of Thai HR czars. They naively take the dominant and oppressive perspectives of history and politics. Like Thai HR leaders, they cannot or do not care to think critically.
As a result, for Thailand HR stands for Hierarchical Regime.
The HR mandarins should read beyond the dominant and oppressive royalist views. They should read the works and interviews by David Streckfuss, Somchai Preechasilpakul, Jaran Khosananant, Worajet Phakeerat, and more, who have studied so hard for years to point out how the LM law violates fundamental legal principles, how it has been a suppressive measure that has victimized hundreds of people for decades and how miserable those victims and their families are, how it is definitely NOT the same as a typical defamation law, and how it has been overtly and shamelessly (ab)used as a political weapon to kill freedom, kill democracy, and literally kill people.
The LM law helps make the royalist views dominant because it forbids an honest exchange of ideas. Whether or not the monarchy is a HR protector, a promoter, or barrier and obstruction to democracy, even a candid discussion and analysis about the 2006 coup, are not allowed. Neither democracy nor HR causes can be flourished under the LM law because the law promotes lies and blindness. The HR mandarins comply obediently by more excuses and silence for the prosecution of a thought crime.
Some victims of the LM law are not considered by the HR mandarins as prisoner of conscience because their words are considered a hate speech. This must be the most perverted definition of a hate crime, which normally means a crime based on racial, ethnic, gender bigotry. In making these speeches a hate crime, this reason suggests that hatred of an oppressive, authoritarian system is a crime. Moreover, while most advocates of HR and freedom of speech contend that a speech is not a crime, the LM law criminalizes speech. Like the LM law, this reason by the HR mandarins also endorses that a speech can be a crime. It validates a thought-crime in Thailand.
Why silence? My guess on the answer
All the above answers by the international HR mandarins are too sloppy – very easily dismissible, including the standard answer about the “private capacity”. If so, is there a true answer that they have not told the public?
The answer is in the sloppiness and the absence of a good reason. Over the past few decades, HR matters have been increasingly recognized as one of the top concerns worldwide. Major Western powers put HR high on its global agenda. AI got a Nobel Prize. The HR organizations in countries and internationally become a complex bureaucracy including having their own corporate interests to protect first and foremost. Their operations become bureaucratized. The higher international profiles they enjoy, their operations and priority change accordingly.
The international HR mandarins probably do not care about the LM issue, no matter what case. All the above answers are merely the careless, dismissive reasons to disregard the inquiries. Except the crisis in the Deep South and the Burma-related issues, Thailand is unimportant either for world politics or for the HR frontlines. Meanwhile, Thailand is probably a very comfortable place for an AI/HRW regional office that they do not want to lose. Therefore the LM issues are negligible. As a consequence of such a bureaucratic mentality, the HR mandarins rely probably entirely on their source like Mr. Zawacki and the Thai HR czars, many of whom actually are not silent but actively support the royalist anti-democracy.
There are individual Thai HR activists who are very frustrated by the HR community. But they cannot do much under the culture of the HR groups with such dominant views and atmosphere as described earlier. The voice of the Thai HR is of the Hierarchical Regime activists. The international HR mandarins probably do not know beyond what their local representatives tell them. They adopt the views and recommendations by Thai HR leaders. They possibly do not know either why they are silent on the LM issues. And they do not care. The international HR mandarins are products of the papers that have been pushed from tray to tray, table to table, across the globe. There is no transparency, nor accountability of the HR bureaucracy, even when they lend their hands to anti-HR and anti-democracy
Meanwhile, real human without human rights protection have gone into exile or got 6, 10 and18 years in prison.
Shame on the HR Mandarins
In fact, there are more instances that show the violations of HR principles due to political biases by the Thai and international HR mandarins. But people who were involved in those incidents ask not to be mentioned to avoid the consequences to their works that need good relationship with those powerful HR leaders.
In 2008, one of the top persons at the AI/HRW gave an advice to a few critics of them (by email) that instead of making a harsh criticism on AI/HRW, the critics should learn how to speak to them as friends. This was exactly the same reaction from Thai HR leaders when they got criticized for supporting the royalist anti-democracy or for any dubious acts and inexplicable silence.
For Thai HR mandarins, they may consider themselves and their works as the professions with higher moral authority than other mundane ones; critics should therefore treat them with utmost regard (higher than people in mundane professions), and a harsh criticism on them is inappropriate. This unconscious claim to higher moral authority is ingrained in Thai hierarchical culture. For the international HR mandarins, I wish to count them as friends, if they are accessible, if they have a better system to understand the complex local issues instead of a very bureaucratized process with researchers who cannot think critically or independently from the dominant ideology of the state, and if they care about real people more than their own organizations and reputations (face). ALL HR mandarins must be accountable for their failure and mistakes. Otherwise, with the moral superiority claim, the HR organizations could become authoritarian, if they have not already been so.
Please also note that a criticism of Thai HR leaders is not welcome by HR activists of particular advocacy of which Thai HR leaders are good supporters, such as the Burma issues. Some of them consider the criticism on Thai HR groups as harmful to the Burma causes. I hope they stand firm on the HR principles instead of the diplomacy of fragmented activist territories. The failure of Thai HR leaders, not a criticism of them, is poisonous to HR causes as a whole. I hope all international HR advocates can cope with complex issues, can articulate the multi-layered position(s) all consistently in accord with the HR principles, and can avoid the trap of a simplistic, binary mindset.
It would be regrettable if the HR mandarins dismiss this article as a criticism by a lackey of Thaksin. Regardless of my politics, however, the HR organizations must be accountable for what they have done. They owe people in Thailand and all over the world who care about human rights an explanation. There are undeniable indications of their failure to uphold HR principles. They must explain.