Uphold Rights to Liberty and Freedom of Expression

(Bangkok, June 28, 2016) —Thailand should protect the rights of ethnic-Rohingya human rights defenders, including the rights to liberty and free expression, and safeguard their legitimate human-rights activities in Thailand, Fortify Rights said today. During Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Thailand June 23 to 25, Thai authorities arbitrarily detained, intimidated, and monitored the movements of several Rohingya community leaders from Myanmar who lawfully reside in Thailand. Some continue to be monitored.

Thai authorities also prevented a question-and-answer session from taking place at a Rohingya-focused civil-society-led press conference in Bangkok on June 23. Thai police and military officials told Fortify Rights that the request to limit the discussion at the press conference was in response to Myanmar’s policy toward Rohingya and to ensure cooperative relations with Myanmar.

“Thailand’s strategic interests are best served by protecting the rights of Rohingya human rights defenders, not cracking down on them,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Bilateral relationships shouldn’t be based on mutually consistent policies of abuse.” 

On June 21, Aung San Suu Kyi informed United Nations Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee that her administration would avoid using the term “Rohingya,” and the Myanmar Ministry of Information reportedly banned government officials from using the term. The European Union Ambassador to Myanmar Roland Kobia announced on June 22 that the E.U. would likewise avoid using the term “Rohingya” to describe communities who self-identify as Rohingya.

These declarations came a day after U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein submitted a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council highlighting the “possible commission of crimes against humanity” against Rohingya in Myanmar.

“We have to understand the context of the Myanmar policy toward Rohingya,” a Thai military official told Fortify Rights on June 23, explaining the government’s concerns with the press conference.

“More discussion on the situation of Rohingya is needed, not less,” said Amy Smith. “It’s going to be a long road ahead if Thailand and Myanmar won’t tolerate discussions about Rohingya and human rights.” 

Thai authorities also arbitrarily detained, intimidated, and monitored the movements of some Rohingya community leaders involved in the event.

On the morning of June 23, Thai Military Intelligence officers arbitrarily detained Mr. Haji Ismail, a Rohingya community leader who was scheduled to speak at the Rohingya-focused press conference. The officers transported him to the press conference, monitored his discussions with journalists at the event, and escorted him back to his residence. The authorities continuously monitored Mr. Ismail from June 23 to 26. 

Thai police also detained at a police station another Rohingya community leader and human rights defender—whose name is withheld here for security reasons—for the entire day on June 23 and instructed him to report to another police station the following day. At his request, Fortify Rights accompanied him to the police station on June 24, where five plain-clothed police officers questioned him and threatened to deport him to Myanmar. At present he is not in detention.

Other Rohingya human rights defenders also reported being monitored by Thai authorities beginning June 23 and continuing to date. Some told Fortify Rights that men who identified themselves as intelligence officials called their phones multiple times on a daily basis and questioned them about their whereabouts and activities.

Thailand has an obligation to protect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly under Articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a state party. Restrictions on these rights are permissible only when provided by law, proportional, and necessary to accomplish a legitimate aim. To justify restrictions on these rights based on national security, international law holds that the state must show a threat against “the existence of the nation or its territorial integrity or political independence.”

The planned press conference and the legitimate activities of Rohingya human rights defenders in Thailand fail to rise to the level of a threat to national security that would justify restrictions on basic freedoms, Fortify Rights said.

The U.N. recognizes “human rights defenders” as “individuals, groups and associations…contributing to…the effective elimination of all violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms of peoples and individuals.” The U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders provides specific protections for human rights defenders in the context of their work, including the rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, and the right to seek, obtain, receive, and hold information relating to human rights.

“The authorities’ recent actions reflect poorly on Thailand’s commitment to uphold human rights and combat human trafficking,” said Amy Smith. “Rohingya human rights defenders working to find solutions for their community should be supported and protected, not harassed and silenced.”

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