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In recent weeks, authorities in Thailand have acted to curtail the rights of persons who are among the most vulnerable in society.

Visiting Samut Sakhorn, adjacent to Bangkok, coup leader turned deputy prime minister General Sonthi Boonyaratglin said on 14 November 2007 that he would deal with the "problem" of migrant workers having children in Thailand by deporting pregnant women back to their countries of origin. The general said that a special arrangement would be made through the powerful National Security Council to deal with these migrants' babies, warning that otherwise there would "certainly be more problems in the future, particularly the problem of demands for rights, which will increase".
Samut Sakhorn was a good place for General Sonthi to make these remarks. Its governor has joined with a number of his counterparts who in recent times have issued orders aimed at restricting the rights of persons from abroad working in their provinces. On October 26 Virayuth Iyamampha issued a notice that people "should not give assistance because it will give th! em the feeling that they belong to the community". He instructed factories employing migrants from Burma, Laos and Cambodia, especially those from Burma, to monitor their behaviour so that criminal cases could be initiated, and also told them not to do anything to encourage the "spread of aliens' culture".

Meanwhile, in the north, army officers have ordered local radio stations to stop broadcasting in a minority language. According to the northern community radio network, two stations were told to cease using Karen for "security reasons". Another radio station broadcasting in Shan, a language used by people from Burma that is closely related to northern Thai, was reportedly warned that it may also have to desist. The orders were not made in writing but appear to have come from the Internal Security Operations Command behemoth, which is also headed by General Sonthi. The broadcasters have insisted that their contents are about health, education and other social matters, and no threat to security, but so far to no avail.

It has often been remarked that the measure of a civilisation is in how well it treats its weakest members. Thailand has not had a good record on the rights of those coming from neighbouring countries to work in its borders or those who have lived within them for as long as ethnic Thais, but who continue to be treated as if they don't actually belong there. By this standard, then, it falls far short of what should be expected of a modern, leading Asian society.

But the implications of these recent moves to deny fundamental rights to millions of persons who are living and working in Thailand extend far beyond those people alone. They come at a time the military has strongly reasserted its prerogative to direct and control anything it sees fit to direct and control, with or without the approval of anyone else. This is not a moral issue; nor is it strictly about migrant or minority rights. It is much bigger than that. It is about the assertion of control over Thailand: about who has the authority to decide about what, when and where.

Since last year's September 19 coup the Asian Human Rights Commission has raised alarm at the long-term consequences of renewed military authority over political and social affairs in Thailand. It warned that although the regime might stick to its timetable to ostensibly withdraw from power, it would put the necessary measures in place to allow it to maintain a strong presence for the foreseeable future.

Many erstwhile human rights defenders, journalists and others jubilant at the removal of the former prime minister from power turned their eyes from these inevitable consequences of his downfall. Having failed to repudiate the army takeover, they appear to have been strangely confused by its effects. Now that an atrocious internal security bill is before the junta's parliament, many have acted with a mixture of righteous shock and anger, as if it were a betrayal for the military to confer immense powers upon itself, further delimit the capacity of the courts to scrutinise its actions, show disrespect to the letter and spirit of a constitution that it itself approved and defy global human rights standards. Yet these were the fundamental premises upon which the coup was launched.

The draft security bill is one consequence of renewed military dominance over Thailand. The increasingly blatant denial of rights to the most vulnerable persons in Thailand, including migrants and minorities, is another. Persons concerned by the former must demonstrate equal concern for the latter. Everyone in Thailand should sit up and take notice at these absurd orders to address the non-existent threats to national integrity posed by pregnant women, "alien" cultures, and languages that are as much a part of Thailand as Thai, but which military personnel have never bothered to learn. For General Sonthi, it is not these women, customs and dialects that are the real problem: as he made plain in Samut Sakhorn, the threat to national security is the notion of rights associated with these things. Human rights, not migrants or minorities, are the danger.

The Asian Human Rights Commission urges all concerned persons and organisations in Thailand and abroad to strongly oppose these nasty moves to further diminish the ability of migrant workers and minorities in Thailand to protect their fundamental rights, and to take them as a warning for all. Make no mistake: how these issues are handled today will rebound onto the rest of society tomorrow.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.


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