The following opinion piece, which I authored, appeared in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

Rights abuse? You wouldn’t read about it

SMH Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

Harry Nicolaides was herded, shackled, into a Bangkok holding cell on Monday. He was sentenced to three years in prison for the contents of a single paragraph. The Melbourne author’s crime was to write a short passage referring to the private life of Thailand’s crown prince in a self-published novel that sold only 10 copies.He was sentenced under Thailand’s draconian lese-majeste law, which forbids any frank discussion of the royal family. In the wake of the conviction, he threw himself on the mercy of the people he was accused of offending, petitioning the palace for a royal pardon.

On Wednesday, this newspaper reported that the Thai army had – on two separate occasions – pushed about 1000 Burmese boat people back into international waters. The refugees were escaping from the Burmese regime’s persecution of ethnic minorities. More than 500 are now said to be dead or missing.

The Thai military stands accused of detaining the refugees and beating and whipping them, before setting them adrift without motors or sufficient food and water. The Government says it has launched an investigation, while the local army commander denied the accusations, arguing his men gave the refugees provisions and “helped them on their way”.

Thailand’s human rights reputation has taken a battering. These two incidents represent a serious challenge for the new Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who says he is determined to restore his country’s reputation after last year’s political turmoil.

His Government came to power a month ago, after the dramatic occupation of Bangkok’s international airport by protesters determined to overthrow the previous government. The protesters crippled Thailand’s lucrative tourism industry, and shredded its long-cultivated image as a foreigner-friendly destination.

Abhisit presents himself as an urbane and modern leader (and Oxford educated to boot), one who can guide Thailand through the international financial crisis, restore the rule of law, and repair the country’s damaged image.

But the Nicolaides case and the humanitarian tragedy of the Burmese boat people are not isolated incidents that can easily be dealt with by public relations spin. They relate to the role of two of the country’s most powerful institutions – the monarchy and the army – which helped bring Abhisit to power.

The Government has placed protecting the monarchy’s reputation at the top of its political agenda. Heightened political divisions over the past few years have generated increasing comment domestically and internationally about the political role of the royal family. There is unprecedented discussion about the palace’s support for the campaign waged by the People’s Alliance for Democracy against Thailand’s former government, which was democratically elected in December 2007.

The Economist suggested – in a now infamous article – that the Thai king had “lost faith in democracy” by endorsing a series of military coups during his reign and remaining silent throughout last year while the ultra-royalist PAD campaigned to overthrow an elected government.

Forbes magazine encouraged further discussion by reporting that the king was the world’s richest royal, with assets worth $US35 billion ($54 billion), while Thai internet bulletin boards regularly feature barely coded anti-royal comments that are especially critical of the Queen, given her open support for the PAD’s campaign.

There has been a vigorous royalist backlash to this outbreak of free speech. The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology has tried to block thousands of websites that carry material on the royal family, army units have been ordered to monitor the internet for inappropriate content and ordinary citizens have been encouraged to report anti-royal comments to police.

The crackdown is serious: a political activist was sentenced to six years in prison for criticising the king at a public rally, while another is in prison awaiting trial and facing the prospect of an even heavier sentence.

Just this week came another charge of lese-majeste. An academic at a prestigious university was charged because eight paragraphs in his book about the military coup in September 2006 referred to the political influence of the king.

Nicolaides was in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in a campaign of good old-fashioned political repression. It is clear the Thai Government is willing to sacrifice freedom of speech for protection ofthe royal family’s image.

But how will it respond to human rights abuses perpetrated by the army? The gravity of the charges over its actions towards the Burmese boat people, plus ongoing international scrutiny, should prompt firm action against the perpetrators. But this is far from inevitable, as there are bigger political issues involved.

The extent of military influence within the Government is not clear, but Abhisit owes his commanders big favours. His path to the prime ministership goes back to the 2006 coup, which overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist government and sent him into exile.

The military-controlled government that followed put in place a new constitution. This included provisions that could be used to undermine a pro-Thaksin government if one was to regain power, which is exactly what happened in December 2007, at the first post-coup election.

The newly elected government had to live with judicial interference and speculation about another coup for much of its short life. Its fate was sealed when the army refused to move on PAD protesters who occupied Government House and, later, the international airport.

The army chief even took the extraordinary step of calling on Abhisit’s predecessor, Somchai Wongsawat, to resign during the airport crisis. When the ruling party was finally dissolved by the Constitutional Court, the army chief played a key role in persuading government politicians to defect to Abhisit’s camp, giving him the numbers to win the parliamentary vote for prime minister.

The army is politically powerful, and Abhisit can be expected to come under pressure not to expose it to undesirable domestic and international scrutiny. There is no lese-majeste law that can be called upon to cover up reports of refugee mistreatment. But already Abhisit seems to be laying the groundwork for a minimalist investigation, suggesting that media coverage of the incident may be exaggerated and that witnesses may have misunderstood what they were seeing. On Thursday he even seemed to endorse the army action, announcing a crackdown on illegal immigrants, declaring “we will push them out of the country”.

The brutal dirty work against the unfortunate refugees is alleged to have been done by the internal security operations command, a military unit dating from Thailand’s fight against communist insurgents during the Cold War. It was given expanded powers after the 2006 coup, and its broad national security brief may grant it protection from close scrutiny.

But whatever the outcome of the investigation, the incident is the latest in the army’s very patchy human rights record. There is a well-documented history of forced repatriation of refugees by army units. And in the southern Muslim provinces, the army’s heavy-handed response to low-level insurgency has compounded grievances and strengthened the cause of anti-government elements.

In 2004 there were two notorious cases of military brutality. In April, 28 militants were killed when the army stormed the sacred Krue Se mosque after a poorly managed siege. One of the commanders involved in the mosque killings, Colonel Manat Kongpan, is accused of leading the recent push-back action against the Burmese boat people. In October about 80 protesters suffocated when they were detained and stacked like logs in army trucks for a three-hour journey to a military base.

No one has been punished for these incidents, which took place under the watch of Thaksin, the champion of the notorious “war on drugs” that claimed over 2000 lives in a nationwide rampage of extrajudicial killings.

Abhisit is undoubtedly keen to distance his administration from the excesses of the Thaksin era. So far, despite some hitches, he has succeeded in presenting a positive image to the international community. After the political turmoil of the past year, his leadership holds out the attractive prospect of stability, perhaps even reconciliation.

But unless his Government is willing to expose the monarchy and the military to internationally acceptable standards of scrutiny and accountability, his human rights credibility will be compromised and he will bear a heavy burden of repression.

Murderous military brutality cannot go unpunished, especially when writing a paragraph about the private life of a prince in an unread book lands you in jail for three years.