U.S. President Donald Trump should urge Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to meet human rights obligations

(BANGKOK and NEW YORK, October 2, 2017)—Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and United States President Donald Trump should commit to protect the right to freedom of expression, refugee rights, and to combat human trafficking following their meeting today at the White House, Fortify Rights said today. Prime Minister Prayut and President Trump are scheduled to meet today at the White House in Washington D.C. to discuss bilateral relations and regional security.

“The Trump Administration’s foreign policy on human rights has been inconsistent,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “The risks of prolonged military rule and ongoing rights violations in Thailand are very real, and that’s a problem not only for the people of Thailand but also for regional and international allies. Human rights in Thailand should be firmly on the agenda of U.S. foreign policy.”

General Prayut came to power after a 2014 military coup, and Thai authorities have since detained hundreds of citizens for exercising their basic freedoms. Thai authorities have blocked public events focused on human rights and arrested journalists and others for expressing political views on social media. Defamation suits in Thailand have risen in recent years, and human rights defenders, journalists, and government critics face long prison sentences for engaging in legitimate activities.

Thailand also continues to fail to protect migrant workers and human rights defenders, which should be a concern for the U.S. government and U.S. investors, Fortify Rights said.

Fortify Rights and 87 civil society organizations recently raised concerns in an open letter to Prime Minister Prayut about 14 Myanmar migrant workers who face criminal prosecution for issuing a complaint about labor rights violations to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand. If prosecuted, they face up to one year and six months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to 30,000 Thai Baht (about US$895).

Thai businesses have also targeted human rights defenders in Thai courts. Between 2007 and 2016, Tungkum Limited, a Thai gold mining company, brought at least 20 criminal and civil lawsuits against media professionals and 33 members of the local community for exposing allegations of environmental problems allegedly linked to the company’s gold mine in Loei Province. Members of Khon Rak Ban Kerd Group (KRBKG)—a community-based group that advocates for environmental rehabilitation in northeast Thailand—are being particularly targeted for their activism. The company has demanded 320 million Thai Baht (almost US$9 million) in compensation from villagers for allegedly damaging its reputation.

Thai authorities should drop all criminal proceedings against Myanmar migrant workers and provide an enabling environment for human rights defenders to carry out their essential work without fear of retaliation, Fortify Rights said.

“Strong bilateral relations between the U.S. and Thailand should be based on the protection of fundamental human rights for all, including critics of the government and communities resisting problematic business projects,” said Amy Smith. “The U.S. government and investors should be able to expect that Thailand will protect its workers, journalists, and defenders of human rights and the environment.”

Combatting human trafficking should also be on the agenda at the White House, Fortify Rights said. Thailand’s $6.5 billion seafood-export industry has been plagued with trafficked labor for years. In recent years, criminal syndicates and complicit Thai authorities also bought and sold tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladeshis, holding them at gunpoint and in cages in remote Thai forests and illicit camps before selling them to the highest bidder. Untold numbers were killed. 

On July 19, Thai authorities convicted 62 human traffickers, including nine government officials, in the country’s largest-ever human trafficking trial. A Bangkok court delivered sentences ranging from four to 94 years’ imprisonment to individuals found guilty.

Years of U.S. diplomatic engagement with Thailand on combatting human trafficking contributed to the Thai authorities’ unprecedented efforts to crack down on the trade, Fortify Rights said, adding that it would be a strategic mistake for the U.S. to de-emphasize anti-trafficking in its foreign policy with respect to Thailand.

Fortify Rights monitored the human trafficking trial that concluded in July in Bangkok. While the court prosecuted an unprecedented number of traffickers in the single trial, including government officials, Fortify Rights documented unchecked threats against witnesses, interpreters, and police investigators. Human traffickers remain at large in Thailand.

“Criminality thrives where human trafficking goes unpunished and where survivors aren’t protected and that has broader security implications for the region,” said Amy Smith. “Thailand must stay vigilant in combatting trafficking and protecting survivors. The U.S. government must not let politics seep into its assessments of the anti-trafficking performance of its allies.”

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