Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand Comes Under Pressure

Brookline, MA

In an unusually stifling move to quiet an admittedly rather sensitive discussion, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs requested that the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) not hold an event scheduled in Bangkok for September 13, 2010:

While the Royal Thai Government attaches great importance to the principles of freedom of expression and diversity of views, it also has a long-standing position of not allowing organizations and/or persons to use Thailand as a place to conduct activities detrimental to other countries. I therefore hope that the FCCT will respect this position and not allow its premises to be used for such activities.¹

The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in conjunction with the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) proposed the conference in order to discuss the current situation of human rights in Vietnam and present a new publication, entitled ‘From Rhetoric to Reality: Human Rights in Vietnam.’

The gist of the report documents the discrepancy between Vietnam’s (2010 ASEAN Chair) rhetoric of the standard of human rights, on the one hand, and its human rights abuses in practice, on the other:

In fact, human rights violations in Vietnam have increased during its chairmanship of ASEAN, with a serious crackdown against freedom of expression, repression of religious communities, stifling of freedom of the press and Internet, widespread use of the death penalty, and abuses of women’s rights. Police violence is steadily increasing. In 2010, Police frequently used force to disband peaceful demonstrations, and several people died under Police interrogation, such as a Catholic mourner in Con Dau and a young man beaten to death for not wearing a motor-bike helmet in Bac Giang.

Alongside the use of coercion and violence, the Vietnamese authorities use the law to suppress political dissent. Vaguely-defined “national security” provisions in the Vietnamese Penal Code – seven of which carry the death penalty – are used to detain peaceful critics, religious followers and human rights defenders, and directives legalize detention without trial.

Why should Thailand want to suppress an open discussion of human rights abuses in Vietnam? Well one reason may have been – and this is speculation – direct pressure from the ASEAN Chairmanship (i.e., Vietnam).

In a lecture given by H.E. Surapong Jayanama, Advisor to the Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs, at Chiang Mai University last month, Mr. Surapong made some conjectures regarding ASEAN’s self-image as a regional power. He postulated that some ASEAN nations (Singapore especially) feared the overweening influence of democracy as represented by Thailand (a nominal democracy) and the Philippines (again, hardly an exemplar of transparency and anti-corruption). These semi-authoritarian nations sought to counterbalance this democratization effect by inviting autocratic governments such as Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia (during Suharto’s reign).

Surapong lamented that the ASEAN charter makes no provisions for penalties or the expulsion of unruly members. Moreover, it has no definitive admission criteria. A non-binding charter is better than none, he suggested, because it represents a benchmark with which to monitor member nations’ behavior.

But this is water under the bridge. ASEAN is largely a self-protecting and internal investment-driven, geopolitical body. There’s hardly much criticism from within and amongst member nations. Just look at the general support ASEAN has lent to Burma’s military regime-led “roadmap to discipline-flourishing democracy” and the (unfair) elections scheduled for November.

In fact, Thailand has cracked down on media freedom heavily in the past, and the Thai government currently blocks an unprecedented amount of websites. The media coverage during the Red Shirt protests earlier this year was completely one-sided, pro-regime, and pro-monarchy. Thailand has a long way to go in balancing out a formal reconciliation process and mending the wounds of its divisive power politics. Deep rifts remain in Thai society.

A similar roadblock prevented the FCCT from having a free and fair discussion of the June 2004 FTA (Free Trade Agreement) Negotiations which took place in Hawaii that year. Dr. Jeffrey Race, a longtime Thailand-Southeast Asia analyst, was set to give a talk on the rule of law in Thailand, presenting excerpts from prior FTA negotiations in Washington. The FCCT contacted him, however, explaining that he would not be able to give said talk, because the Club “had received phone calls from two official agencies, details of which [they] could not reveal.”

Further, Dr. Race commented that the “delicate choice of words (‘I have received legal advice’) signalled to us that the FCCT was under threat of litigation if it facilitated documentation of the condition of the rule of law in Thailand.”²  Dr. Race pointed out to me in private correspondence (email, 12 September, 2010) that the “two official agencies” were the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the US Embassy. Apparently, Race was privy to some potentially damaging information.

In a retort, the FCCT published an article in The Nation, alleging Dr. Race declined the invitation to speak and complained of censorship:

We invited Dr Race to participate as a panellist because he attended a public hearing on the FTA in Washington earlier this year and expressed interest in discussing a particular issue related to the negotiations – the rule of law in Thailand. However, Dr Race chose not to participate after we asked him not to distribute what we understood to be documents pertaining to specific court cases that were of questionable relevance to the discussion. We made this request based on independent legal advice to avoid putting the FCCT at risk of being used as a platform for Dr Race’s personal grievances and being held culpable in any way…It was made clear to Dr Race that the FCCT is an open forum where all guests are encouraged to express their views freely. We invited him several times to join in the discussion, but he declined and instead made a brief statement from the floor implying that he was a victim of censorship.³

This does not explain why both the Thai FM and the US Embassy joined to block his presentation. Nor does it explain why their motions of censorship were removed from the official record, as Race pointed out to me in that email conversation. However, as seen in the Thai FM’s recent censorship of the FCCT (2010) panel on Vietnam’s human rights record, Thailand is hardly reluctant to suppress free discussion of sensitive issues. It seems the current wave of Thai censorship of Red Shirt media, as well as the overwhelming bias promoting the ruling PM Abhisit Vejjajiva and the powers that be, extend to a larger, regional level, protecting other ASEAN regimes such as Vietnam’s Communist Party: a worrisome trend.

¹ Email from Khun Thani Thongphakdi, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affair’s acting Director General of the Department of Information. Cited in an email from the Executive Committee of the FCCT, 12 September 2010.

² Dr. Jeffrey Race, in the Bangkok Post, 26 June 2004.

³ Daniel Loverling, VP FCCT, “Letters,” in The Nation, 29 June 2004.

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