Rights group sees surge in cross-border repression of dissidents in Thailand and its neighbors


By Zsombor Peter - VOA | 2024.05.16

BANGKOK — Thailand has grown increasingly dangerous for foreign dissidents seeking shelter in the country over the past decade, and more repressive of its own dissidents abroad, Human Rights Watch says in a new report.

The U.S.-based human rights group dates the start of the surge to Thailand’s 2014 coup, which swapped the country’s democratically elected government for an authoritarian military regime. Tainted elections in 2019 returned Prayut Chan-ocha, the ex-general behind the coup, to power at the head of a military-backed government for another four years.

Though Prayut’s party lost last year’s general elections, it remains a part of the ruling coalition with senior members in the cabinet.

“For a long time, Thailand has been somewhat of a sanctuary for people fleeing persecution in neighboring countries,” Elaine Pearson, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, told VOA ahead of the report’s launch in Bangkok on Thursday.

“But since 2014 we noticed an escalation in arrangements with other countries and an escalation in the harassment, surveillance and intimidation of those exiles living in Thailand, often asylum seekers or refugees awaiting resettlement in third countries,” she said.

A spokesman for the Thai government did not reply to VOA’s request for comment. Two former spokespersons for the previous Prayut government also did not reply to VOA.

The report, We Thought We Were Safe: Repression and Forced Return of Refugees in Thailand, recounts 25 cases since the coup ranging from assault by gangs of masked men to the abduction, deportation and murder of dissidents in Thailand and its neighbors, mainly Laos and Cambodia.

“In terms of the level of state involvement, it does really vary. But we are concerned that in a number of cases there is clear collaboration between the Thai authorities and officials from other countries in terms of apprehending and sending back people at risk in Thailand,” Pearson said.

One of the first cases following the 2014 coup was also the largest.

In 2015, Thailand deported 109 ethnic minority Uyghurs to China, which the United States and others have accused of committing genocide against the mostly Muslim ethnic minority. China denies the accusations.

The Uyghurs were arrested the year before for entering Thailand illegally on what they hoped would be their way to Turkey, where the Uyghurs claim to have roots.

Thai authorities at the time defended the move as “per protocol.”

Other cases have been more mysterious but bearing what advocates believe to be the hallmarks of foreign state involvement.

In 2023, Duong Van Thai, a Vietnamese activist and journalist taking refuge in Thailand while making plans to resettle abroad, was kidnapped by unidentified men in front of his rental home just north of Bangkok. Human Rights Watch says the abduction was caught on video. Days later, Vietnamese authorities said Duong had been arrested entering Vietnam illegally, a claim his friends dismissed as far-fetched. He has since been put on trial for conducing “propaganda against the state.”

Human Rights Watch and others say such cases, with or without the states’ admission, appear to be part of a long-running “swap mart” among the Mekong River countries, a quid pro quo arrangement by which they agree to return each other’s political dissidents regardless of their potential persecution back home.

The groups say the deals are largely kept out of sight. In 2018, though, Thailand and Cambodia announced a bilateral pact to monitor and help return the other’s “fugitives.”

While sold as a deal to help bring wanted criminals to justice, Pearson said, “The reality is that this basically provided a green light to track down political dissidents.”

Human Rights Watch says at least 12 foreign dissidents taking refuge in Thailand, including a number of Cambodians, have reported being surveilled by unidentified men since 2014, and confirmed at least four attacks.

Thai dissidents seeking shelter abroad from their own government have not been safe, either.

Nine have gone missing or died under suspicious circumstances over the past decade in Laos alone. They include two known activists whose bodies were found in January 2019 on the banks of the Mekong where the river divides the two countries. Their hands were tied behind their backs, their abdomens cut open and filled with concrete in an apparent attempt to weigh them down in the water.

All the cases chronicled in the report occurred before Thailand’s new government took office in September.

Pearson said it was too soon to say whether Thailand would change tack but added that it had new incentives to try.

“Particularly at a time when Thailand is both courting more foreign investment from Western governments but also seeking a seat at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, then it really needs to show that it is addressing human rights violations that occur on its soil,” she said.

Thailand also enacted a new law last year explicitly outlawing enforced disappearance. And while the government does not officially recognize refugees, it has launched a program that lets foreign asylum seekers apply to the Thai government for “protected persons” status and, in theory, spare them from forced return.

Both moves have raised hopes that foreign political dissidents in Thailand and Thai dissidents abroad will be safer, Pornpen Khongkachonkiet of the Cross Cultural Foundation, a Thai rights group that has independently investigated some of the cases highlighted in the new report, told VOA.

She said the Thai government also appears more willing of late to let foreign dissidents picked up on immigration charges resettle in third countries rather than deport them to the countries they fled, citing a few examples over the past year.

Still, a group of at least 43 Uyghurs continue to languish in a Bangkok detention center some 10 years after they were arrested for illegal entry, without charge or any indication from the new government of whether they too will be sent home or allowed to resettle elsewhere.

Pornpen said the new government has also demonstrated no more motivation than the last to thoroughly investigate the harassment, attacks, abductions and disappearances of dissidents reported over the past decade.

“Without political will of the current government … the investigations will go nowhere,” she said.

“We as civilians, we cannot look for evidence,” she added. “We need the power of the DSI [Department of Special Investigation], we need the power of prosecutors, we need the power of the police to look into all those reports…. But [there is] not political will.”




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