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British Ambassador Mark Kent in a meeting with officials on Phuket

Give Thailand Inclusive Human Rights, Says British Ambassador

Thursday, December 18, 2014
THIS WEEK I was in Khon Kaen, to attend the 7th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival.

The festival was jointly held at Khon Kaen and Ubon Ratchathani Universities on 10 December, in recognition of ''International Human Rights Day,'' and was attended by a wide range of local community activists, as well as diplomatic colleagues from Canada, New Zealand, the US, Sweden and the EU.

This has not been a good year for human rights in Thailand.

Severe restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly, and other basic human rights have been in place since the imposition of martial law in May. Limitations on freedom of speech have resulted in the censoring (and self-censoring) of the media, NGOs, and academic institutions.

One effect of this has been to lessen the quality of national debate in Thailand regarding the reform process now being led by Prime Minister Prayuth's Government.

Against this backdrop, it was good to go to Isaan and hear from local activists, whose views are rarely heard in Bangkok.

On a personal note I very much enjoyed returning to Khon Kaen University, where I previously studied the Thai language for several months.

I grew up in a small village. I know about the hardships that rural communities can endure and how they can be overlooked and patronised.

I believe strongly in equality of opportunity and an equal voice for all citizens, as well as equal treatment before the law.

The UK is not the same as London. And Thailand is not the same is Bangkok. It was moving to see old people stand up and recount their hardships, and their determination to make progress.

They may have lacked opportunities for a formal education, but they are not stupid. They want a better life for their children and grandchildren and their communities.

They have every right to do so.

At the festival I spoke about the importance of freedom of expression to a strong democratic culture.

Freedom of expression and a free media and social media are essential rights that allow citizens to be adequately informed and able to vote according to their own interests.

Without these rights, and without opportunity for debate, any return to elections will not be meaningful.

The NCPO claims that they are providing the platform for debate on reform of the political system through the National Reform Council and various local initiatives.

However it is clear that many local activists in Isaan feel they do not possess the opportunity for their voice to be heard, given the current limitations on freedom of speech.

One activist told me it feels like local people are being forced to wait as the military imposes reform upon them, rather than being actively involved in the process.

It was also striking that many local people feel that the current restrictions are beginning to infringe upon their daily life.

Farmers with concerns over their economic situation are unable to organise to protest for a change in Government policy.

Local groups struggling to protect land rights against corporate interests in their area are unable to campaign or effectively access justice.

They feel unable to voice concerns about health and environmental issues. Without the participation of local communities and transparency in decision making, injustice and corruption can flourish.

It's not hard to see how limitations on freedom of expression and assembly have a real impact on local communities throughout Thailand.

For a democracy to be genuine, it must be inclusive.

All citizens should have equal rights and the opportunity to participate fully in the political process, and to have a say in decisions that affect their lives.

Democracy also subjects governments to the rule of law and ensures that all citizens receive equal protection under the law and that their rights are protected by the legal system.

Thailand is a party to many international human rights conventions - including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - that are supposed to enshrine these democratic principles.

Under martial law, these principles are not being upheld.

If Thailand wishes to become a respected and active player in the global community it must take these issues seriously.

The Isaan villages may not be familiar with UN conventions, but they should be able to benefit from the rights in them in their daily life.

Of course this is not to say that Thailand is unique in not always living up to its human rights obligations.

International events this week have shown that Western democracies face human rights challenges of their own too.

However, because the democratic culture in these countries is strong, the space is there for the dissent, debate and enquiry which leads to accountability.

It was great to meet so many enthusiastic and passionate activists in Khon Kaen.

My thanks go to the organisers whose determination ensured the festival would go ahead when similar events have been cancelled under pressure in recent weeks.

I believe that events such as these which listen to the real concerns and ideas of local communities are equally, and probably more, valuable than set-piece showcase events organised with international participation in five-star Bangkok hotels, to which the diplomatic corps is invited to give its seal of approval.

Events such as these ensure human rights remain a part of the national dialogue in Thailand even under difficult circumstances.

I hope that we will have seen progress on many of the issues we discussed at the festival in time for next year's International Human Rights Day.

Declaration of Interest: In July next year, Phuketwan journalists Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian face a continuing trial over criminal defamation and Computer Crimes Act charges brought by the Royal Thai Navy, citing a 41-word paragraph from a Pulitzer prize-winning Reuters special report on the Rohingya boatpeople. Reuters and other news organisations in Thailand that published the same paragraph have not been charged. The charges were laid before the military takeover in Thailand. The British Embassy has raised directly with the Royal Thai Navy its concerns about the Thai military suing the media for criminal defamation.

This article was originally published as a blog on the British Foreign Office site.

Comments

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Dear Alan
This is an excellent article from the British Ambassador. It is certainly well worthwhile to reprint it as you have done.

Posted by Ian Yarwood on December 18, 2014 10:38

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Open, important, and true words. It really is time for it.

2014 was not a good year for Thailand. The fact a diplomat speaks frankly and openly, is a sign that the international community is concerned.

Mr.kent can do this because he is in a protected position, and it is good that he does.

Hopefully we soon will hear some brave citizens of this country they express the concerns of the population.

As long as a country is unwilling, to offer freedom of speech and freedom of the press, equal rights for all its citizens, it is only limited competitive and fit for the requirements of a modern civil society in the 21st century.

Posted by Georg The Viking on December 18, 2014 15:14


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