Government clampdown on human rights press conference does not follow the Asean objective to promote discussion of the issue
Thailand’s human rights record will come under further scrutiny this week because the Foreign Ministry has just pressured the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) into cancelling a scheduled press conference on the human rights situation in Vietnam.
The event was being organised in conjunction with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR). The two participating organisations have for decades been tracking human rights violations and abuses in Vietnam.
This was an unusual move by the Foreign Ministry given Thailand’s sensitivity to its perceived record on human rights issues. It is the first time that the coalition government under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has made such a decision, and it is a real setback for human rights debate and discussion in the region.
Officially, Thailand has consistently highlighted its noble objective of protecting and promoting human rights both within the country as well as within the region. But when it comes to reality, this is hardly the case.
Thailand is the current chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council, and thus should practice what it preaches, especially at home. Indeed, Thailand should be more vocal about the human rights situation in Asean in general.
We should be frank with our friends in Asean, otherwise we will be doing the UN and the regional grouping a disservice. Within the grouping we should encourage continuous dialogue on human rights and good governance. Thailand and fellow member Indonesia are both good regional examples to follow. In recent years both countries have opened up investigations into alleged abuses and have begun more open discussions on human rights violations.
Both countries are working diligently to end the culture of impunity – deeply ingrained in nearly all Southeast Asian countries.
It must be remembered too, that all the Asean members are also included within the UN systems and are signatories to key bills of rights. They have also been filing their human rights reports through the so-called universal periodic review.
Vietnam’s role in promoting human rights in Asean is even more important because it is the current Asean chair. It is also a most favoured trading nation and investment partner of the US, and has growing economic ties with the West.
However, judging from the influx of foreign investment from the West in recent years, it does not appear that respect for human rights is a consideration for increased investment in Vietnam. Indeed, one of Hanoi’s biggest assets is the inherent political stability and a lack of dissident voices or actions that could disrupt entrepreneurial activities. In that sense, with its political stability at a nadir, Thailand scores very low in terms of investment attractiveness.
Hanoi has reiterated during recent Asean meetings that the grouping has a common objective to promote and protect human rights, as stated in the new Asean Charter. Thailand should explain to Vietnam in the not-too-distant future that a press conference on human rights in Asean countries – which is based on facts from official files and press reports – should be allowed.
Bangkok did a good job in persuading Hanoi of the importance of having Asean-based civil society organisations take part in the Asean decision-making processes. Such common endeavours should be encouraged and should not be perceived as acts of interference in the internal affairs of other member countries.
Asean leaders have agreed that by 2015, Asean will become a single economic community, with 600 million people holding shared common values and cultural norms, including human rights and democracy issues. However, the recent actions by authorities in Vietnam and Thailand do not bode well for this goal at all.