Last week I blogged about questions raised in the UK Parliament by the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kerry McCarthy MP (Bristol East, Labour Party) regarding Thailand’s use of its infamous lese majeste laws and the treatment/death of Ampon Tangnoppakul aka Ah Kong (a Thai political prisoner who died on May 8, 2012). My original posting, with Kerry McCarthy MP’s questions, can be found here.
Yesterday, the Minister of State (South East Asia/Far East, Caribbean, Central/South America, Australasia and Pacific) at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Jeremy Browne MP (Taunton Deane, Liberal Democrat) published the UK government’s response to these questions (the full answers can be found here, here, here and here).
What is clear from these responses is that the UK is very uneasy about the lese majeste law itself, the disproportionate sentences meted out by the courts for those found guilty of LM and the general treatment of prisoners.
What is also becoming evident is that the USA is increasingly isolated in its continued and persistent failure to hold Thailand – an important military ally of the USA – to account for its human rights breaches. Given that the USA have been long-term backers of Thailand’s most powerful and least democratic element and biggest supporter of the lese majeste law – the Thai Army – this should come as no surprise to commentators.
Furthermore, a US citizen, Joe Gordon, remains imprisoned in Thailand on lese majeste charges for comments he posted online whilst he was resident in the USA. The USA’s Bangkok mission has been noted for its lack of response to the imprisonment of one its nationals under one of the most draconian censorship laws on earth and the UK’s statement further underlines US failures on this issue.
On Ah Kong the UK Minister of State responded that:
With our European Union partners, the UK expressed concern last year at the conviction and imprisonment for 20 years of Ampon Tangnoppakul for violating the lese-majeste laws.
[This] statement reiterated the importance attached by the EU [the UK were co-signatories of an EU statement] to the rule of law, democracy and respect for human rights.
On lese majeste the Minister stated:
We are closely following the development of freedom of expression in Thailand and are concerned by the significant increase of lese-majeste cases in the country and the application of the laws and length of sentences in recent cases.
Our embassy in Bangkok continues to monitor the ongoing trials of high-profile lese-majeste and freedom of expression on the internet cases. We have urged the Thai Government to ensure that the rule of law is applied in a non-discriminatory and proportionate manner consistent with upholding basic human rights, and will continue to take appropriate opportunities to do so.
More importantly the UK government also makes clear its call for Thailand to review the lese majeste laws:
In October 2011 at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the human rights situation in Thailand was reviewed as part of the Universal Periodic Review process. The UK played an active role, including raising our concerns about freedom of expression and specifically recommending that the Thai Government seek to review its lese-majeste laws.
What impact these comments will have is, of course, debatable.
The wider international community – with the exception of the USA – is now explicit in its eagerness for Thailand to make more headway in meeting its legal obligations under international law. To do this it would seem that the democratically elected Thai government will need to bring the Thai Army – the biggest supporters of lese majeste – under civilian control. This civilian control is also unlikely to be achieved without US assistance and the longer the US fail to act to bring their clients in the Thai Army to heel the longer Thailand’s slide away from democracy will be.
It can also be said that since the death of Ah Kong Thai domestic opinion has hardened at both ends of the lese majeste debate. Such hardening will likely only lead to more conflict, something only those who benefit from a widening of Thailand’s political crisis would seek. It’s time for the US to step-up and demand the Thai Army allow for proper reform to take place.
All I can say is – don’t hold your breath.
Couple of claims here in the comments that the US has actually made an equivalent formal call for Thailand’s lese majeste laws to be reformed. They haven’t. What actually happened is that Kristie Kenney made a couple of very bland comments on twitter, while the Embassy made one short statement about the imprisonment of Joe Gordon. Then there was a strange and almost orchestrated over-reaction to these very banal comments by various Thai neo-fascist patriot groups. Since then the US has been mostly silent, despite one of their citizens remaining in prison after what can only be called a deeply flawed trial.
As pointed out by myself in the comments below when the Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council was conducted last year in Geneva – the moment when LM came under the closest international scrutiny – the US refused to sign a statement, something a number of other governments did, which called for Thailand’s 112 law to be reformed. If the USA had done it would have given considerable more weight to the statement. The US didn’t. Question is, why?
What the US govt have actually said formally was they were “troubled by recent prosecutions and court decisions that are not consistent with international standards of freedom of expression.”
This is a relatively bland and meaningless statement and when set against the UK, EU and other governments’ calls for reform of LM, increasingly isolates the US in their one-eyed stance on lese majeste.