A weak rule of law is contributing to political division and violence in Thailand, according to the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).
A report issued by the ICJ at a Bangkok seminar said the Thai government needs to find a balance between protecting citizens and guaranteeing security on the one hand, and maintaining the rule of law under international human rights obligations on the other.
The International Commission of Jurists is a non-governmental organization of lawyers from around the world which works “to ensure that international human rights law is actually implemented” at national levels,
At the Bangkok seminar, held at Chulalongkorn University, a panel discussed Thailand’s Internal Security Act (ISA). One panelist, Roger Normand, the ICJ’s Asia-Pacific director, acknowledged that the ISA is an improvement on original drafts, and is less-restrictive than the Emergency Decree that remains in force in the Muslim-majority south.
But a weak rule of law contributes to political divides and violence in Thailand, according to the ICJ, which said it was concerned at the ISA’s “failure to clearly define the concept of a threat to national security.”
This “legal uncertainty,” the ICJ said, was “likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of association and expression, and to negatively impact on privacy rights.”
Noting that no specific level of violence was required to assess an internal security threat, the ICJ said this risked “blurring the line between security threats and legitimate political dissent.”
To address real and perceived security threats, the ISA gives significant powers to Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC),which was set up to deal with Communist uprisings in the 1960s and 1970s. While in power as Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra reduced the powers of the ISOC and the influence within it of the army.
However, after the 2006 coup the ISOC was granted extra powers and the role of the army was upgraded. The downsizing of military budgets implemented under Thaksin has also been reversed, the ICJ said, although some of Thailand’s establishment argue that the country’s military spending still lags behind southeast Asian counterparts.
The Bangkok panel was joined briefly by one of the men closely involved in the creation of the ISA—acting government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn, who said the measure was a response to Thailand security and political conditions. “Laws come about and are made as these conditions change,” he said.
The ICJ agreed that “states have an obligation under international law to protect the human rights of people within their jurisdiction, and the right to security is part of this.” When violence takes place under a political agenda, states have the right to prevent it and punish the perpetrators.
Panitan compared the ISOC to the US Department of Homeland Security, which was set up after the terrorist attacks in the US on Sept 11 2001.
Seven times in the latter half of 2009, the Thai government declared exceptional powers under the ISA to be in force, in four southern districts of Muslim unrest and in other areas where anti-government demonstrations had broken out.
The ICJ stopped short of recommending the repeal of the ISA but said certain provisions “that violate or risk violating international human rights obligations” needed to be amended.
The ICJ recommended that the language of the act should be revised to better define the SOC’s powers and jurisdiction, and that human rights protections should be made explicit in the legislation. The ICJ also recommended that the provision for the prime minister to delegate direction of the ISOC to the head of the army should be abolished.
Originally, the army commander-in-chief was to head the ISOC, but under the revised ISA, the prime minister is the ISOC Director.
However, there is a significant caveat to this, as the prime minister can delegate authority over the ISOC to the head of the army. The ICJ says that this is not ideal as it means that civilian control of the ISOC depends on the relative strength of the prime minister in a country where coups and coup attempts are frequent.
Coup rumors circulated recently after the appearance of armored vehicles on Bangkok streets, with Thailand awaiting a Feb 26 verdict on frozen assets belonging to deposed former premier Thaksin.
Pro-Thaksin “red shirts” are staging a series of protests against the looming High Court decision, which some believe will go against the former premier.
Panitan believes that the ISA might be deployed in coming weeks, but told journalists that no decision had yet been taken.
Associate Prof Somchai Preecha-silpakul of Chiang Mai University went further than the ICJ in criticising the ISA. He said the law was “about government security not state security” and gave the military “a role in Thai politics.”
This role could be decisive in deciding who governs Thailand, according to fellow panelist Naruemon Thabchompon, of the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University. She said the ISA allows military officers to effectively act as “kingmakers” in Thai politics, in keeping with what she termed the “Thai style of democracy,” which allows “prominent personalities to have a disproportionate say in [the question of] by whom and how the country is ruled.”Show