Human rights activists protest Thai military junta leader visit to Australia

March 23, 2018

There were multiple demonstrations on the weekend of March 17–18 while a host of dictatorial leaders from the region were welcomed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to a Special Summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The Thai Alliance for Human Rights (Australia) (TAHRA) was angry that former general and now Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the leader of the illegal military junta running Thailand, was welcomed to the summit after foreign minister Julie Bishop had pledged in writing that “given Australia's commitment to democracy and the rule of law” Australia would “put in place a mechanism to prevent coup leaders from travelling to Australia”.

Somsak Rachso, President of TAHRA, told Green Left Weekly: “We have asked for an explanation of when and how this approach to the Thai military junta was changed by the Australian government and what were the reasons for such a change?

“In our opinion, there are very strong reasons for the government not to weaken its approach to the military junta in Thailand.

“Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta has failed to keep its repeated promises made at the United Nations and elsewhere to respect human rights and restore democratic rule. Repression of civil and political liberties, imprisonment of dissidents, and impunity for torture and other abuses continues.

“It has introduced a new constitution that allows Prayut to wield absolute power without oversight or accountability. Elections have been postponed again and again.

“Media outlets face intimidation, punishment and closure if they publicise commentaries critical of the junta and the monarchy, or raise issues the NCPO considers to be sensitive to national security — including the repression of basic rights. There is a ban on public assembly by more than five people and people are arrested for posting comments or even photos on social media.

“The junta continued to use sedition (article 116 of the Criminal Code) and the Computer-Related Crime Act (CCA) to criminalise criticism and peaceful opposition to military rule. Since the 2014 coup, at least 66 people have been charged with sedition.

“More people are being jailed under Article 112 of the Criminal Code which prescribes prison sentences from three to 15 years for persons found guilty of defaming, insulting, or threatening the King, Queen, Heir-apparent or Regent.

"At the time of the May 22, 2014 military coup, there were only six individuals behind bars on lèse majesté charges. Since the coup, authorities have arrested at least 105 people on lèse majesté charges, mostly for posting or sharing critical commentary online. Some have been convicted and sentenced to decades of imprisonment, including a man sent to prison last June for 35 years for critical Facebook posts.

“Since 1980, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has recorded 82 cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand. Many of these cases implicated government officials.

“The killings of more than 30 human rights defenders and other civil society activists since 2001 remain unresolved. Thai authorities and private companies continue to frequently use defamation lawsuits and other criminal charges to retaliate against individuals reporting human rights violations.”

In a letter to Bishop, TAHRA noted that although the UN and Western governments have called on the junta to respect human rights and return the country to democratic civilian rule through free and fair elections, US President Donald Trump received Prayut at the White House in October 2017 and did not publicly raise human rights concerns. The US military also sought to restore its previous close engagement with Thailand’s military.

Australia’s foreign minister and defence minister separately visited Thailand in August 2017; neither publicly mentioned human rights concerns. Then, last week we saw Turnbull welcome Prayut to Sydney.

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