Monday, April 26, 2004

So much for the rule of law. It's back to the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. กรรมของประเทศไทย

COMMENTARY: Another case of shooting the messenger

Published on Apr 26, 2004

The skirmishes between the Thai government and human-rights organisations are escalating into a full-blown war. This is silly, and too many people are getting hurt.

Hina Jilani's job at the UN is to monitor the safety and freedom of people around the world who work on behalf of human rights. She compiles an annual global report about them as well as occasional special reports on individual countries.

She came to Thailand for eight days in May 2003, in the aftermath of the first, bloody phase of the government's war on drugs. She has now presented her report.

She thanks the government for making her visit possible. She notes that she had very free access. She praises ways in which this government has targeted poverty. But there the diplomatic politeness runs out. Thailand used to be a beacon for human-rights work in the region. Its own importance was magnified because the situation in neighbouring countries was so much worse. For the Burmese in particular, Thailand's freedoms were vital. Hence the fact that Thailand is "no longer as comfortable a location for human-rights defenders and their organisations" is doubly unfortunate. Jilani says she is concerned that the current government has declared war on the NGO movement. In the past, the vitality of Thailand's NGOs contributed much to Thailand's good image in the world.

But now the government tries to undermine their legitimacy by denigrating them publicly. It tries to block funding from abroad. It applies harassment through rules and regulations. She concludes: "Some officials perceive the function of serving the people as exclusive to the government." They think NGOs just get in the way. As Jilani summarises: "There is limited acceptance among some authorities of the concept of peaceful dissent."

This is bad in itself. It also sends a clear message to people with bad intentions. The result is evident from the cases listed in the report.

Boonyong Intawong, a community leader protesting against the negative health and environmental impacts of a rock quarry in Chiang Rai, was killed in December 2002. Boonsom Nimnoi, a community leader opposing a Phetchaburi plantation, was killed in September 2002. Suwat Wongpiasathit, an activist protesting a landfill in Samut Prakan, was shot dead in March 2001, a day before he was due to speak to a Senate committee on the environment.

Jurin Rachaphol, a Phuket campaigner against the destruction of mangrove swamps, was killed in January 2002. Pitak Tonewuth, a Ramkhamhaeng University environmental activist, was killed in May 2001. Sompol Chanapol, another leader of a local conservation group, was killed in July 2001. Luechai Yarangsi, president of an environmental group in Lampang, was shot but survived.

Preecha Thongphan, a community leader opposing a water-treatment project in Nakhon Si Thammarat, was killed in September 2002. Jintana Kaewkao, opponent of the power projects in Prachuap Khiri Khan, was shot in her home in January 2002. On the following day her colleague, Yuthana Khaemakriangkrai, was also shot.

This litany of cases is so striking because the pattern is the same: an activist opposing some attempt to wreck the local environment is killed. These incidents come from all over the country. This handful of cases includes just those which Jilani managed to document during a short eight-day visit. Jilani was told that police had made arrests in some of these cases but had not been able to bring a single suspect to trial. She draws the quiet conclusion that this must be because of "collusion between local authorities and commercially powerful actors from the private sector". Translated from reportspeak: big people shoot little people who get in their way.

Another very vulnerable group includes leaders or supporters of hill communities. Jilani steers clear of the drug war, claiming that extrajudicial killings are not part of her work. She does, however, note that hill-community leaders who had been critical of police work in the past tended to find their way onto the blacklists of drug suspects.

A group of community forest activists who set up roadblocks to exclude loggers from a forest were attacked and shot at by an armed band. A leader of the Northern Peasants Federation was shot and injured in Lamphun.

Sadly, the government has reacted to this report rather negatively. It has tried to suggest that the report was prematurely leaked (versions have been officially available on Internet for some time). The foreign minister has made some huffy comments. The Thai representative to the UN officially responded to the report by rebuking Jilani as an ungrateful guest and accusing her of not knowing how to write a report. He says: "We obviously cannot accept generalised comments and the inclusion of unsubstantiated information." He complains that Jilani's visit has not turned out to be a "learning experience", implying that she is at fault.

Whisper "human rights" now, and the government goes into full counter-strike mode. This is sad. The root problem is obviously the drug war. Jilani skips past this but does note "the intense sensitivity of the government on this issue".

By refusing to engage in any sensible discussion of what happened during the drug war, the government digs itself deeper and deeper into a hole. The more antagonistic the government becomes to human rights and their defenders, the more it encourages those who regularly violate human rights for fun, power or profit.

The fact that the ministerial team at the forefront of the drug war (Chavalit, Thammarak) has been pulled off the case in the South is very significant. Thaksin knows what forces are at work. The costs of allowing them free rein in the South have become too high.

But breaking down the broader antagonism between this government and the human-rights community will be much more difficult. This government has identified itself too closely with some of the bad old authoritarian ways. And that means people at the grass-roots level will continue to get shot for defending the environment, their communities and their ways of life.

Chang Noi

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