Human rights and democracy remain an elusive combination in Thailand

As nations recognise UN Human Rights Day, turbulent political regimes in Thailand continue to degrade opportunities to implement the event’s inherent values

Written By:
December 10, 2021
Human rights and democracy remain an elusive combination in Thailand
This picture taken on August 26, 2021 shows former Nakhon Sawan province district police station chief Thitisan Utthanaphon, nicknamed "Joe Ferrari", leaving the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok, after he surrendered to the authorities following accusations of torture and suffocation to death of a drug suspect. Photo: Krit Phromsakla Na Sakolnakorn/Thai News Pix/AFP

The United Nations signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and now marks the event annually on 10 December with the commemoration of Human Rights Day. 

As this day passes year after year, however, the environment for human rights in Thailand continues to degrade. A torrent of recent news underscores how alarming conditions in the country have become. 

The Royal Thai Police have a long history of brutality, violence and corruption, which was captured succinctly by the death of a drug suspect in August at the hands of Police Colonel Thitisan Utthanaphon, also known as “Joe Ferrari.” 

The victim was suffocated after layers of plastic bags were placed over his head during interrogation. Police brutality also has been on display during pro-democracy protests when riot units deployed water cannons laced with chemicals to disperse demonstrators.

The Constitutional Court ruled in November that the demands of protesters, who broke decades of social taboos and norms by issuing ten demands for reforms to Thailand’s monarchy, were an “abuse of the rights and freedoms and harmed the state’s security.” 

The potential penalties are life in prison or even death. Activists in Thailand face sedition charges or, more seriously, acts of treason. Since 2020, approximately 700 protesters have been charged with serious crimes including sedition. More than 100 were charged with lèse majesté, the crime of insulting the monarch. 

Respect for human rights is commonly tied to democracy, which remains one of the UN’s universal core principles. Many states are described as democratic, including Thailand, most infamously by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2019 Democracy Index, which moved the Kingdom up 38 places after the March 2019 election. 

Part and parcel with human rights are regularly held elections by universal suffrage to realize a host of civil and political rights. Democratisation, some have argued, can lead to better human rights protections and a broader range of political and civil liberties. 

A child holds a sign calling for reform as rights activists gather at Victory Monument to protest against the country’s widely-criticised laws protecting the monarchy, in Bangkok. Photo: Joan Manuel Baliellas/AFP

In Thailand, history suggests otherwise.

Thailand’s democratisation over the past several decades has been at best uneven and at worst tragic. Patterns of advancement and retraction are common. The forced exile of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn after an uprising on 14 October 1973 led to a temporary restoration of democratic rule under Seni Pramoj, only to be overtaken by a military coup placing anti-Communist crusader Thanin Kraivichien in power with the consent and approval of the Thai monarchy. 

Likewise, the appointment of Anand Panyarachun to the Constitution Drafting Assembly in 1996 led to the widely respected 1997 People’s Constitution. Under Anand’s chairmanship, independent and crucial institutions were created to promote human rights and protect democracy in the country, including the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT) and the Election Commission. 

However, the much-heralded constitution was abrogated in 2006 after the coup d’état that deposed former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Both institutions are now in a state of slow decay

Academics have studied the linkages between democracy and human rights protection for decades, with the bulk of the literature suggesting democracies vastly outperform authoritarian regimes in protecting civil and political rights. In general, more democratic states are less likely to repress populations or grossly violate human rights, a dividend known as the domestic democratic peace. 

There are variations to the rule, as evidenced by the use of torture by some democracies, who not only condoned the practice, but expanded its practice and scope. Recently, the US has become indecisive on a number of human rights issues, from the closure of Guantanamo Bay to the Trump-era policy of separating families during detention.

It is difficult to make a comparison with Thailand’s brief democratic flirtations over the past two decades, but two periods of democratisation are worth noting. 

The democracy barometer Freedom House, which has rated and ranked countries in its Freedom in the World Index since 1973, categorised Thailand during the Thaksin Shinawatra era as “Free.” The methodology is elementary. Political rights and civil liberties categories have numerical ratings between one and seven, with one being the most free and seven the least free. Thailand earned two and three between 2001 and 2004 and declined to ‘partially free’ in 2005 and 2006. 

Thaksin’s time as prime minister offered little insight into how periods of democratisation can lead to improved human rights records. Despite his seemingly impenetrable coalition, populist politics and public policy promises that brought hope of a democratic resurgence, Thaksin’s record on human rights was beyond appalling.

His war on drugs, an opportunity Thaksin seized from King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s December 2002 call to bring Thailand’s methamphetamine problem under control, is a dark chapter in Thai history.

Pradit Chareonthaitawee, the former NHRCT commissioner, reportedly received death threats, remarking at one time that “people are living in fear all over the Kingdom,” a sentiment echoed by Judge Charan Pakdithanakul, also of the NHRCT during the same period. Thaksin’s heavy hand, or authoritarian tactics in implementing his war on drugs, drew many critics. 

While Thailand became the epicenter of drug trafficking through Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle, Thaksin brutally used extrajudicial killings. During the first ten days of his campaign against drug dealers and criminality, a war echoed by Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, more than 100 and as many as 183 people were killed.

Human Rights Watch claimed there were 2,800 extrajudicial killings in the first three months of Thaksin’s war on drugs, while an official investigation found more than half had nothing to do with narcotics. To the dismay of human rights activists today, no one has been held accountable for their deaths. 

Oddly, for an extended period Thaksin received broad public support. Thailand’s democratic opportunity gave way to Thaksin’s brash populism during which quick results were valued far more than adherence to the rule of law.

Thaksin presided over a culture of impunity that still reverberates deeply in Thailand’s Deep South. Many Thais are familiar with the infamous Tak Bai incident in Narathiwat, in which 85 Muslim protesters suffocated while being transported on military trucks in October 2004. 

Prior to their arrest, more than 1,500 Muslims gathered in front of the Tak Bai police station to demand the release of village defense volunteers arrested on charges of stealing weapons. The protest turned violent after security forces killed seven Muslims and arrested countless others, piling them on top of one another like firewood on the way to a military camp in Pattani Province. Justice still escapes their loved ones. 

Widow Sitirokayah Salaeh visits the cemetery in Tak Bai where her late husband is buried together with other anti-government demonstrators who died during the 2004 Tak Bai incident, in Thailand’s restive southern province of Narathiwat. Photo: Madaree Tohlala/AFP

Despite inheriting democratic institutions from the 1997 Constitution, Thaksin found time to abuse them rather than nurture them. His crackdown on Thailand’s free press is well documented. The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote in March 2005 that his intimidation and coercion tactics had a “chilling effect on critical voices in the Thai press.”

Thaksin could easily claim a broad electoral mandate and the support of a cross-section of Thais, partially due to policy successes such as the 30-baht national health scheme. Yet he fleeced Thailand’s democratic moment through his abuse of democratic institutions, assaults on journalists and the free press, alleged corruption, curbs on civil liberties in the South and egregious human rights violations. 

Thaksin’s actions are more relevant and disappointing considering the brittle quality of Thailand’s nascent democracy. His removal in a September 2006 coup d’état was worsened by enabling those who cared even less for democracy to further trample the remaining devices of democracy, including the progressive 1997 Constitution. 

The short time during which Yingluck Shinawatra held high office was less tumultuous than her brother’s administration, but there were several missed opportunities to bring accountability to past human rights atrocities. 

Her tenure was criticised by human rights defenders as failing to bring to justice those responsible for political violence in 2010, human rights abuses in the southernmost provinces and violations of refugee and migrant rights. 

Human rights and democracy are intricately linked, but respect for human rights seemingly only comes when candidates uphold democratic principles. The Thai people have had little opportunity and scarce time to strengthen democratic institutions and human rights protections. 

Thaksin’s missed opportunity should not be lost on the Thai public. For now, Thailand’s human rights environment remains bleak. If and when another moment arises, it should be seized by someone who champions democratic values.

Mark S. Cogan is an associate professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

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