Thailand’s Vietnam cancellation a concern – The Irrawaddy

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http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=19493

Thailand’s decision to block a press conference criticizing Vietnam’s human rights record is a concern for human rights activists and freedom of speech advocates, including opponents of Burma’s ruling military junta.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand said on Sunday that it had been asked by Thailand’s Foreign Ministry not to allow its premises to be used for a news conference by the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). The pair of speakers scheduled to travel to Bangkok for the event were told before departure that they would not be permitted entry to Thailand, where they hoped to launch a report titled, “From vision to facts: human rights in Vietnam under its chairmanship of ASEAN.”

Thailand is the current chair of the UN Human Rights Council, which is currently in session in Geneva. Vietnam is the 2010 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), following on from Thailand’s chairmanship last year. Hanoi is currently preparing for the next Asean summit due to be held in late October, just before the Burmese election scheduled for Nov. 7.

The junta has long been something of an embarrassment and hindrance to Asean, slowing down the development of trade and political links with the US and EU in particular. Observers are waiting to see if the post-election period will see a push from some Asean members to have the Burmese government recognized as democratic, which may in turn have implications for Burmese opposition groups.

Thailand has long been a refuge for Burmese opposition leaders and political exiles, as well as hundreds of thousands of refugees and millions of migrant workers. Perhaps more vulnerable than most are groups who work on Burma-related issues inside Thailand. Jackie Pollock, the director of the MAP Foundation which works closely with Burmese migrant workers, told The Irrawaddy that if the Thai government forges closer links with its Burmese counterpart, there could be negative implications for the Burmese opposition and ethnic leaders, many of whom are based in Thailand.

Col James Lum Dau, the deputy chief of foreign affairs of the Kachin Independence Organisation, said that it is too early to judge whether the Vietnam case has broader implications, but expressed hope that the Thai authorities understand that the human rights situation in Burma is “much worse than in Vietnam, as I see it,” and therefore would not hinder the Burmese opposition-in-exile. According to statistics collected by the VCHR, there are at least 258 prisoners of conscience behind bars in Vietnam. The numbers are low compared with Burma, where there are estimated be to more than 2,100 political prisoners. Both Hanoi and Naypyidaw deny that there such detainees within their respective jurisdictions.

Given some of the differences between Burma and Vietnam, concerns about a move against Burma-focused advocacy might be premature. Thailand has had difficult dealings with Burma in the past, and according to Carl Thayer, a Vietnam specialist at the Australian Defence Force Academy, “the Burmese military has crossed the border to attack dissidents in refugees camps, Burmese artillery has shelled Thailand on occasion, and Burma has not been able to suppress the cross-border drug trade.”

Burma’s ruling junta perhaps does not see the value in resorting to formal diplomatic protests when one of the many conferences and seminars criticizing its rule take place in Thailand. It can counter the activities of Thai-based activists in other ways. In May 2009, Aung Htoo, a Burmese opposition lawyer went into hiding before fleeing to Europe, citing intimidation by junta agents in Bangkok, after the Thai government refused a junta request to cancel a Burma Lawyers Council seminar on human rights violations in Burma. Exiled political leaders from ethnic minorities have been assassinated in border regions of Thailand, close to Burma.

Compared with Burma, Vietnam has a less acrimonious history with Thailand and, according to Thayer, “has been more circumspect in its dealings with Bangkok,” perhaps reflected in the Thai government’s response to Hanoi’s concerns about the VCHR report. On Tuesday, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said that “Vietnam welcomes Thailand’s refusal of the use of Thailand territory for activities with anti-Vietnam purposes.”

Overall, however, Thailand’s move goes against recent history, as the country has long been a regional hub for political dissidents and seen itself as “a leading country in the region when it comes to protecting freedom of expression,” as Thai media freedom advocate Supinya Klangnarong put it to The Irrawaddy.

However, she lamented that the current government “seems to be going backwards, however, and is emulating other Asean countries that do not respect freedom of speech.” According to the VCHR report, at least 17 people are now in prison in Vietnam “simply because they exercised their right to peaceful expression on the Internet.” In Thailand, there are at least 10 people in jail for offenses related to the Computer Crimes Act or Internet activity, though the actual figure is hard to determine, according to Supinya. An estimated 100,000 websites are blocked in Thailand, a figure that increased since anti-government “Redshirts” launched a protest in March, in turn leading to violence in central Bangkok and a May 19 army crackdown. Bangkok remains under a State of Emergency, granting the security forces a range of discretionary powers.

As well as pointing out Internet restrictions and political prisoners, the VCHR report contains other stinging criticisms of human rights issues in Vietnam. It asserts that journalists are regularly harassed, with 749 cases recorded in 2009. Freedom of religion is not respected by the Vietnamese authorities, the report says, with “Buddhists from the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, Catholics, Protestants and Hoa Hao Buddhists all suffer[ing from] serious abuses of religious freedom.”

Ironically, a group of nearly 40 Vietnamese Roman Catholics fled to Thailand in May following a clash with police over a land dispute that left dozens of Catholics injured and dozens more detained as they tried to bury the remains of an elderly woman at a cemetery the government planned to turn into a tourist spot. The group are are currently seeking asylum in Bangkok and say they fear repatriation and persecution at the hands of the Vietnamese government. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry says it will object to any decision by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to grant political refugee status to the parishioners, saying that the clash had nothing to do with religion, adding that “there is no religious or political repression in Vietnam, so any decisions to recognize Vietnamese citizens as political refugees are unfounded and inappropriate,” according to spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga. The UNHCR in Bangkok was unable to comment on the applicants’ status, when contacted by The Irrawaddy.

It is likely that Hanoi does not want any negative publicity in the run-up to the Asean summit scheduled for late October, something that the Thai government might empathize with, given that political protests scuppered a 2009 summit during Thailand’s Asean chairmanship. However, even this relatively prosaic rationale for canceling the conference has negative implications as it marks “a huge step backwards in terms of Thailand’s commitment to the Asean Charter and the human rights commission,” according to Debbie Stothard, the head of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, a network of organizations across Southeast Asia, which is “working to support the movement for human rights and democracy in Burma.”

The next test of human rights commitments in Southeast Asia will come soon, with the ASEAN People’s Forum due to in Hanoi on Sept. 23-26, with activists who are due to attend now worried that Vietnam’s successful blocking of the VCHR press conference might have implications for the forum.

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