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Rights group urges Thailand to stop returning dissidents

BANGKOK (AP) — Human Rights Watch urged the Thai government to stop forcing political dissidents who fled to Thailand for safety to return to their home countries, where they may face torture, persecution or death.

The international rights group analysed 25 cases that took place in Thailand between 2014 and 2023. It said in the report Thursday that Thai authorities violated international law by expelling the dissidents, many of whom were registered with the United Nations as refugees and were awaiting resettlement in third countries.

Many of the cases involved the forcible repatriation of Cambodians, with the suspected involvement of Cambodian security personnel. But the group also listed cases where dissidents from Vietnam, Laos and China were tracked down and abducted, or forcibly disappeared or killed.

The report said Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, in return, cooperated with Thailand to spy on Thai dissidents who had fled their own homeland to escape political repression.

Human Rights Watch called this a quid-pro-quo form of transnational repression “in which foreign dissidents are effectively traded for critics of the Thai government living abroad.”

Asked about the group’s findings, Thai Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nikorndej Balankura said Thailand is committed to respecting and upholding humanitarian principles, including not forcing asylum-seekers and refugees to return to countries where they might face persecution or where their lives or freedom might be endangered.

Separately, the Foreign Ministry has now ratified the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which will come into effect on June 13.

The ministry said that ratification means that Thailand will now be party to eight of the nine core international human rights treaties.

Human Rights Watch called the ratification a positive step but said that Thailand must take action to match its words.

“The best way Thailand can show its commitment is by opening fresh investigations into cases of enforced disappearances,” she said. “Their families deserve justice.”

Thailand’s military ousted an elected government with a coup in 2014, and military and military-backed rule remained until an elected civilian government led by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin took office last year.

“The Srettha administration should launch an investigation into these allegations of harassment, surveillance and forced returns of asylum seekers and refugees in Thailand. It should investigate the disappearance of Thai anti-junta activists in other Southeast Asian countries,” Elaine Pearson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, told The Associated Press.

“I think there is an opportunity to end this practice and for the Srettha administration to show it is different from the previous military-led government,” she added.

She noted that the Thai government is currently seeking a seat on the UN Human Rights Council “and that comes with responsibilities to protect human rights.”

The report cited nine cases of Thai activists in Laos and Cambodia who disappeared or were killed in mysterious circumstances. It said most of the reported cases have not been resolved or seen anyone prosecuted.

The mutilated bodies of two missing activists were found in late 2018 floating in the Mekong River. In 2020, a young Thai activist, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, was snatched off the street in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh and never heard from again.

Thai authorities have repeatedly denied any connection with such events.

Freedom House, a US-based democracy promotion organisation founded in 1941 that tracks transnational repression, warns that the practice “is becoming a ‘normal’ phenomenon as more governments around the world use it to silence dissent.”

“Some attacks are unilateral, but most involve cooperation with or exploitation of host country institutions,” it says on its website about the subject. “

The most common forms of physical transnational repression—detentions and unlawful deportations at the origin state’s request—entail co-optation of the host country’s institutions. Most renditions also involve close collaboration with host country authorities to illegally transfer people to the origin country.”

Dr Francesca Lessa, an associate professor in International Relations at University College London, said there were some parallels with the way autocratic leaders in Latin America made agreements to work together to eliminate political opponents on each other’s soil in the late 1970s to 1980s.

“Whether they follow right or left ideologies, these autocratic governments consider opposition and dissent as constituting a threat to their survival in power and, thus, to be eliminated, whatever the means required,” Lessa told the AP.

Thai rescuers cover a body on the shore of the Mekong River in Nakhon Phanom province northeast of Bangkok, Thailand, December 27, 2018. PHOTO: AP