Thailand: Coup Remains Big Setback for Rights

Promises for Restoration of Democracy Look Bleak on Coup Anniversary

( HRW ) - One year after a military coup that ousted the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's military-installed government has taken few steps to keep its promises to protect human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Prospects for the return to an elected government through free and fair elections remain uncertain.

On September 19, 2006, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin led a bloodless coup, accusing Thaksin of corruption, undermining democracy, and polarizing the country. The military junta - now called the Council for National Security - then established a caretaker government to oversee what they promised to be a quick return to democratic governance. The government promised to end abuses by security forces in the predominantly Muslim south and investigate killings during Thaksin's crackdown on drugs.

"Thaksin's contempt for human rights and democracy was evident, but Thailand is worse off because of the coup," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Martial law remains in many areas of the country, there are greater restrictions on the media, and many key institutions such as the parliament, the Constitutional Tribunal, and the Election Commission have become tools of military rule."

In August a referendum on a new constitution sponsored by the military-backed government was endorsed by 56.69 percent of voters. Under the new constitution, elected prime ministers will be limited to two terms in office and will be more easily subject to impeachment. The House of Representatives has been reduced from 500 to 400 seats, 320 of which will be directly elected and 80 appointed from party lists. In a blow to democratic representation, direct elections for members of the Senate, which has played a powerful role in checking the power of the executive, will be abolished, with national and provisional committees composed of bureaucrats and judicial officials instead appointing the 150 senators. This appointed Senate will select members of important agencies - such as the National Election Commission, the Counter-Corruption Commission, the Office of Parliamentary Ombudsman, and the National Human Rights Commission.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern about steps being taken by the military to ensure that it retains a greater role than it has under previous elected governments. On September 17, the Council for National Security announced that martial law, which was enforced across the country on the night of the coup, would remain in effect in 27 provinces. In addition to continuing martial law in provinces which share borders with neighboring countries or face security threats from insurgency or cross-border crimes, the Council for National Security aims to use martial law to tighten its grip on Thaksin's strongholds in the north and northeast. This contradicts Prime Minister General Surayud Chulanont's promise on September 14 to lift martial law before the general elections. The Council for National Security reportedly feels threatened by the results of the August referendum, in which 62 percent of the voters in the northeast region rejected the military-sponsored charter.

The Council for National Security and the caretaker government of General Surayud Chulanont claim that the restoration of democracy will take place with the promulgation of a new constitution, the holding of general elections (now scheduled for December 23), and the formation of a new government.

"The new constitution is actually a step backwards for Thailand," said Adams. "The problem in the past has been the inability of democratic institutions to function independently and check the misuse of power by the government and other vested interests, including those of the military. The military-sponsored constitution does not fix that problem, but instead allows key powers to be controlled and manipulated by appointees from the military and bureaucracy at the expense of elected leaders."

While the new constitution seems to guarantee freedom of expression and media freedom, the caretaker government has shown little regard for these basic rights. Since the coup, the government has actively infringed on press freedom. Soldiers are still placed inside the T-iTV station - until last year owned by the Shinawatra family. Scripts of T-iTV's famous news and talk programs are often required to be approved by the public relations department of the Prime Minister's Office before they can be broadcast. Many community radio stations in the north and northeast initially blocked after the coup have since returned to the airwaves, but with decidedly less critical commentary of the military. As a result, self-censorship has become a concern for every newsroom.

Since September 19, 2006, the government has been active in silencing cyber critics and dissidents. Many political websites established in opposition to the coup have been harassed or blocked. The authorities are also monitoring critical opinions and debates on popular the opinion boards of Prachathai (www.prachathai.com) and Pantip.Com (www.pantip.com). They have issued warnings to both websites that they, too, would be shut down if they failed to remove opinions critical of the military authorities. Freedom of expression on the internet suffers a serious blow with the enforcement of the Computer-Related Offences Act, which has given the authorities impetus to be even more aggressive in policing online content.

"To keep their promises to make the upcoming general elections free and fair, the military needs to end martial law and unlawful restrictions on the media and internet," said Adams. "Otherwise, the military risks a legacy of an unrepresentative parliament and government and the political instability that may follow."

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