Between fear and hope: A forum on human rights and democracy in Thailand

KHON KAEN – Last Friday, speakers at a public forum agreed that widespread, state-instilled fear is keeping people from voicing their political opinions, while ten state intelligence officers observed and recorded the event.

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The forum’s international session was joined by Sonja Gebauer, Political and Protocol Counsellor at the Embassy of Germany in Bangkok, and Andrew L. Armstrong (second from left), Human Rights Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.

The forum on human rights and democratization was organized by the The Isaan Record, the Faculty of Political Science of Ubon Ratchathani University, and the NGO Coordinating Committee on Rural Development (NGO-CORD). The forum was funded by the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation.

In the morning session, diplomats from two foreign missions to Thailand made a strong case for the social and economic benefits of a functioning democracy and its ability to guarantee human rights to an audience of 30 people.

“A working democracy is necessary to protect human rights,” stressed Sonja Gebauer, Political and Protocol Counsellor at the Embassy of Germany in Bangkok. Human rights abuses are not just cruel but threaten a country’s stability and undermine economic and social progress, she said.

Ms. Gebauer acknowledged that building and maintaining a democracy is a difficult task. But as autocratic regimes worldwide are falsely promising easy solutions to complex problems, she stressed that democracy remains the best way find widely accepted solutions.

Andrew L. Armstrong, Human Rights Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok said that a democratic system might have flaws but it ultimately produces the best results for a country’s people.

“We don’t expect democracy to be perfect, and we recognize that democracy is often messy, difficult, and sometimes very inefficient. But at the same time we think it’s the best form of government to protect our freedoms,” Mr. Armstrong said.

In the following two forum panels, academics, lawyers, and activists from the Northeast and Bangkok provided a sharp contrast to the international session by painting a gloomy picture of Thailand’s current situation in which, they say, human rights are routinely disregarded and fear reigns among the people who want to express dissenting opinions.

“Today, human rights are violated in the name of the law,” said Yaowalak Anuphan, head of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), stressing the arbitrary nature of the laws implemented and enforced by the military government. Since the coup in 2014, Ms. Yaowalak said, the law is used to control and limit people’s rights and liberties.

Dr. Niran Pitakwatchara, a former Thai human rights commissioner, said that after Thailand shifted to an authoritarian system, freedom of expression has been criminalized.

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“Democracy and human rights are ideals, like shining stars in the distance,” said Surapot Thaweesak, a scholar of philosophy and religion.

“Dissent is seen as a revolt, and those who express different opinions are labeled enemies and terrorists,” argued Dr. Niran, adding that in democratic systems diversity in opinions is seen as a positive feature of society.

Dr. Narut Wasinpiyamongkhon, a lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University, said that since the military coup in 2006, it seemed like Thailand was returning to become a ‘bureaucratic polity’, an academic model describing a political system ruled by state officials instead of elected governments.

“It’s like an old movie, dusted off, and screened again,” Dr. Narut asserted, adding that since the 1950s, the bureaucratic polity not only left its mark on the political system but also on peoples’ ways of thinking.

“Thai society is conjuring up ghosts all the time to scare people,” argued Dr. Narut, referring to a culture of fear that authoritarian leaders of the past created by invoking communism or western-influenced students as a threat to society.

“When people are scared they remain silent,” said Dr. Niran in response. In a recent poll on the participation in the constitution referendum, 60 percent chose not to express their opinion, which indicated a climate of fear in society, he said.

At the same time as speakers on stage diagnosed fear as the state’s chosen tool to stifle dissent in society, at least ten military and intelligence officers looked on and videotaped the event from the back of the room. The local military approved the event under the condition not to incite people to vote for or against the charter draft in the upcoming referendum.

Despite the fact that Thailand today seems to be further away from achieving democracy and protecting human rights than ever in the past decade, speakers agreed that hope must not be abandoned.

“Democracy and human rights are ideals, like shining stars in the distance,” said Surapot Thaweesak, a scholar of philosophy and religion. Yet Germany and the U.S. provided concrete examples that these ideals could become reality when people chose to fight for them, he said.

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