Opinion – Thailand’s human rights commission needs to chart its future after its checkered past speaks volumes

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Despite public doubts throughout its existence, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) has recently celebrated its two decades, by hosting the First Human Rights meeting in Bangkok, focusing on the rights of the minority and marginalised groups, including a criminal justice system, community rights and environment, diaspora, and statelessness, marginalized and vulnerable people under COVID-19, LGBTQ.

The discussion on the political rights was not highlighted at the NHRC assembly, which raises a significant question towards its neutrality and autonomy of this body. This was not such a surprise the general public, instead it has escalated a feeling of disappointment towards the NHRC.

Throughout the two decades of the NHRC, Thailand has been very much dominated by the country’s political polarisation. Toward the end of its first decade, the political confrontations between the conservative movement – known as ‘yellow shirts and the pro-democratic movement – known as ‘red shirts’ took over the Thai political stage, the 2010 political crackdown and death of the protesters by the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, prime minister of Thailand between 2008 and 2011. This tragedy was not and has not yet been condemned by the NHRC, which raised a question over its impartiality.

Red Shirt supporters shout slogans during an anti-government protest at central world junction in Bangkok on April 3, 2010.

Despite other human rights challenges for the NHRC, Thailand’s political polarisation persisted, in the wake of the movement of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) between 2013-2014 leading up to the 2014 Thai coup d’état, in the second decade of the NHRC.

As the NHRC enters its 3rd decade there remains a significant challenge for the functioning of the NHRC, because the coup-makers still have a tight grip on power, despite the diffusion of the Thai political power to the political newbies – young people who have gained more political power and spaces.

Ironically, the political participation of young people is not welcome and perceived to be a threat to Thailand’s national security, whilst the successive governments have been attempting to encourage all Thais to actively participate in the country’s political system. During the economic miracle between the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Thai Ministry of Education started to promote a ‘student-centre’ teaching approach in anticipation to cultivate active citizen.

Nevertheless, the military and establishment determine to maintain the Thai cultural tradition of being obedient, as observed in the Twelve Core Values of Thailand, imposed by the 2014 coup maker. In addition, the political rights of Thais, especially young people, have significantly been curtailed by the military jurisdiction since 2014, whilst Thailand is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Indeed, Thailand is abided by the ICCPR to promote and protect political liberty and freedoms of Thai people. Nevertheless, political rights of young people at schools, universities, and in a society at large, are not fully protected and guaranteed by the state.

It is very important, not only for human rights progress in Thailand but also for the future of the country, the NHRC has to take a serious consideration in forcing the military-led government to unconditionally comply to the ICCPR.

Thailand has gone through 3 sessions of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which is an international platform to scrutinise the state of human rights with member countries of the UN. Although, pressure from the international community has been a contributing factor to push for human rights progress within Thailand, but the country has been defiant to conform to the universality of human rights, specifically political freedoms – including the infamous criminal code 112 or Lèse-majesté law.

Thailand has been persisting to overrule its international commitment by the Thai cultural tradition, despite the law is criticised for being politicised and extended beyond its intended use.

Thailand has demonstrated its failures to comply to the ICCPR, because political liberty is significantly perceived to be a threat to structure of power. However, the elite and political establishments have been able to mislead the public to believe that liberty and freedom is contradictory to the so called ‘Thainess’ and risk further dividing the country. This allows the state to impose the superiority of the country’s cultural tradition over inherit human rights and undermine the functioning of the NHRC.

Since 1999, the establishment of the NHRC, in accordance with the 1997 Thai Constitution, is intended to ensure that it can be the country’s human rights mechanism to promote and protect human rights, upholding Thailand’s commitment to the United Nation Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as scrutinising the failures of the state on human rights protection.

Nevertheless, the NHRC is among other independent agencies in Thailand such as the Election Commission and the National Anti-Corruption Commission, that have been questioned whether they are truly independent from the influence of the government, regardless of military or civilian governments.

It might be a valid claim that the NHRC is not entirely responsible for human rights problems within Thailand. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the NHRC is the core mechanism to promote and protect human rights in Thailand.

In a country like Thailand, where the military is an integral part of the political system and the conservatives remain a dominant actor, thus a tremendous amount of courage and energy of the NHRC is necessary to ensure that ‘political rights’ of Thai people, especially young people, are promoted and protected. In addition, the rights of young people must be respected by both the state and the society.

Thailand’s army chief General Prayut Chan-O-Cha speaks after the May 2014 coup.

Nevertheless, this remains a big question toward the faithfulness of the NHRC with respect to the universality of human rights.

The NHRC never officially demonstrates to ascertain the public that the universality of human rights, specifically political rights, cannot be overruled by Thailand’s cultural tradition. Despite, a discussion on a criminal justice system at the meeting, the NHRC has mostly aligned with the government charges on lèse-majesté cases against young political activists.

Between 2020-2022, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights estimated that at least 202 people have been changed in the 225 court cases as a result of their political activities, mostly including the protests against the military-led government since the 2019 general election.

It has been observed that lèse-majesté law has recently been politicized and used to protect the power of the political establishment rather than truly protecting the institution of the monarchy as the law is intended.

The cultural tradition has been a convenient justification for the military-led government to overrule the universality of human rights and not to comply to ICCPR, at the cost of liberty and freedom of the people.

The future of political rights of young people and the rest of the country is now left in the hand of the NHRC to take a courage to materialise this inherit human rights of Thai people, instead of protecting the power structure.

It is a choice between protecting the “Rights” of people and protecting to structure of “Power” of the political establishment, which the NHRC has to decide what kind of future for Thailand does it want to shape in decade or decades to come. This decision will also put to test the integrity and the willingness of this supposedly independent body – NHRC.

Titipol Phakdeewanich is a political scientist at the Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University.

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