The Thai army’s harsh treatment of Burmese boat people raises important issues about human rights in Thailand.

Thailand’s human rights record has not been impressive, not only on the part of the military but also the government policy itself. At a broader level, the Thai government has not been a party to the Geneva Convention of 1951, and it is reluctant to ratify any international agreement related to human rights issues.
Thai security agencies do not seem to be comfortable with adopting international standards as they are regarded as a way in which their actions could be circumscribed, hence putting Thailand’s security in danger. However, with increasing international pressure on human rights issues, Thailand tends to accept some human rights practices but not every aspect. So, in short, by not accepting international legal frameworks, Thailand is able to apply the practices only on a minimal basis and often slips away from that as long as its violations are not monitored or reported by the media or NGOs.

The violation of the human rights of refugees and immigrants can be seen throughout the country. For example, Thailand’s Ministry of Interior always discourages and even bans foreign workers from organising their own traditional festivals such as during songkran. It has been reported that the authorities are afraid of any political campaign or propaganda against Rangoon that may take place. So, if Burmese refugee or migrant groups are allowed to hold festivals, the Thai police monitor them closely.

Mistreatments are also found in the Thai government’s management of Burmese refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border. Camps’ sanitation and proper basic living standards are always an issue between NGOs, international organisations and the Thai government. Everything has to be negotiated instead of applying the basic and proper measures that would be expected if Thailand accepted the international law. This also brings about corruption, as some government officials from both the army and the Ministry of Interior see such negotiations as a way to obtain financial benefits, especially at the operational level.

However, the recent Rohingya refugee incident is very surprising. Although the army may not apply a high standard of treatment in relation to Burmese refugees, they are generally not so inhumane. I think, perhaps, there are several reasons for the Navy and ISOC officers’ misconduct this time, compared to the refugee camps in the north.

First, there are a lot of refugee camps and NGO operations in the north and they have been there for many years. So, you can expect the security officers to be familiar with international pressure and monitoring. This learning process may help them exercise more caution on their own policy and implementation and mitigate some problems. However, these Rohingya migratory flows are seasonal, especially in the dry season as the sea is calmer. So, there are no permanent camps or NGO offices to help them in a regular basis.

Second, it seems from media reports that all of the boat people involved in these incidents are Muslim male. The security officers may have been too wary of them having some links to unrest in Thailand’s south. Perhaps security paranoia was heightened in the context of the recent Mumbai bombings.

Third, the security officers may have been trying to demonstrate to the boat people that they should not come through Thailand any more. In general, these Rohingya refugees go to Malaysia through Thailand. The agents that arrange their passage have told them that Thailand is a safe place to land and proceed to Malaysia. So, this time the harsh action may have been designed to send a clear message that they should not land in Thailand.

Another issue is the question of why ISOC is involved in this kind of operation. It needs to be seen in the context in which ISOC responsibilities have evolved. Although ISOC was set up as an anti-communist measure during the Cold War, it was revamped several times.

First, during mid-1980s ISOC’s mission was adjusted to be more supportive to the main operation of the army and the police instead of having their own independent roles. This reflected the decrease in Cold War tension.

Second, ISOC was revamped again under the Chuan government. As the communist threat was no longer visible, ISOC was assigned to support other non-traditional security operations, which included border security and illegal migration.

Third, in 2001 during the Thaksin government, ISOC’s role was reduced considerably especially in the management of problems in the southern provinces. Its role became merely a co-ordinating body and civilian officials were also part of the ISOC structure. For example, the deputy of ISOC used to be only the Supreme Commander in Chief but this was changed to include a permanent-secretary from the Ministry of Interior and another political affairs position.

Recently, the ISOC was empowered by the September 2006 coup and the interim National Assembly during the Surayud government, via the Internal Security Act (ISA) 2008. The implementation of ISA is not subject to any legal restriction that may be brought against ISOC officers in the Administrative Court. So, with broader responsibilities and power under the ISA of 2008 you may see how ISOC came to be involved in this incident.