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Human Rights in Thailand: Interview with Professor Tyrell Haberkorn
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The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military junta in Thailand that took power in the May 2014 coup, was dissolved in 2019.  It has been accused of committing numerous human rights violations during that time.  Have there been lingering effects on the present constitutional monarchy in its treatment of human rights? 

Professor Tyrell Haberkorn: The effect of the NCPO is still felt because although the NCPO was officially dissolved in July 2019 following the March 2019 election and the installation of a new cabinet, very little actually changed. The prime minister for the last four years, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, was the head of the NCPO and the head of the NCPO-led government. The Constitution that governed political and social life, the 2017 Constitution, was authored by a committee selected by the NCPO and institutionalized the place of the military in Thai politics. Perhaps most significantly, the NCPO itself remains to be held to account for launching the coup and the numerous rights violations carried out during their regime. The reason this has happened is that the junta amnestied themselves. Until the amnesty is revoked – which would be unprecedented in the history of Thai coups – the impact of the NCPO will continue to be felt.

Thailand has a long history of incidents involving government-sponsored torture and enforced disappearances.  However, in October 2022, King Vajiralongkorn passed into law the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act to address these and other human rights issues such as the handling of refugees.  What are your thoughts about the act?  Do you have any concerns about it?    

The passage of the Act is an important step towards ending impunity for state violence, and important for Thailand’s compliance as a state party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The big question is what will enforcement of the law look like? Will relevant state agencies perform the roles they are called upon to do? Will the police, military and other state security officials long involved in torture and disappearance take the act seriously and change their practices? The Act is an important first step, but I anticipate that the struggle to fully implement it may take a long time.

In 2020, the Thai government implemented the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation B.E. 2548 (“Emergency Decree”) in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  There have been allegations that the decree was overreached to restrict the right of expression, peaceful assembly, movement, and peaceful assembly. How problematic were repercussions from the decree?     

The Emergency Decree was explicitly used as a tool of political repression, rather than a measure to aid in curbing the spread of COVID-19. According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 1468 people have been charged with its violation in relation to peaceful protest [see https://tlhr2014.com/archives/49210]. While a number of the cases initiated in 2020-2021 that have been brought to trial have recently ended with the dismissal of charges, those accused have had to deal with a lengthy and costly legal fight. In addition, there are many cases which remain ongoing. In short, the use of the decree amounts to judicial harassment.

What major challenges do past and present victims of human rights violations face to obtain justice in Thailand?

The major challenge that past and present victims of human rights violations face in obtaining justice is entrenched impunity. Whether at the level of the entire polity, such as with coups, or individually, such as when a police officer tortures a suspect, holding state officials who violate the rights of the people to account has bene nearly impossible to date. The courts defend the state at the expense of the people, colleagues of perpetrators turn the other way, and witnesses are intimidated into silence.

As seen in the 2020-21 democracy protests, Thailand has had a vigorous group of activists.  What risks do they encounter?

They face harassment and intimidation of themselves and their families. They face illegitimate, unjust, and disproportionate legal prosecution. Those who call for reform of the monarchy further face the possibility of extrajudicial violence.

How would you characterize the current state of democracy in Thailand?

The current state of democracy in Thailand is that it is nonexistent. The 2019 election was meant to mark the end of dictatorship, but it instead ushered in a further authoritarian period cloaked in the clothes of electoral democracy. But the election itself was neither free nor fair – a fact emphasized by the February 2020 dissolution of the Future Forward Party, whose sheer existence, let alone their progressive way of doing politics, was too much for those in power to bear. Parliament was against dissolved last week in advance of a general election in May. We should all keep our eyes on what happens next – in the lead up to the election, on the day of the election, and afterwards.

Professor Tyrell Haberkorn at University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She researches and writes about state violence and dissident cultural politics in Thailand from the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932 until the present. She first traveled to Thailand in 1997 to be part of international feminist labor solidarity, and this became the basis for the past twenty years of working across academic and activist lines to challenge state repression and other forms of injustice. She is currently working on a first draft of an indictment of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military junta that took power in the 22 May 2014 coup and also writing about the history of radical imagination for a more just and democratic future in Thailand through the life of Supot Dantrakul, a political prisoner, dissident, and organic intellectual active between the 1950s and the 2000s.

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