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Thailand Must Unclench its Fist

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In the aftermath of the bloody repression of April and May 2010 which claimed the lives of close to 90 civilians, the Thai authorities cooed and purred in tones of reconciliation. They promised a renewed dedication to peace and dialogue, and movement toward an eventual election that would rectify the current government's absence of a legitimate democratic mandate.

Unfortunately, almost four months later, the government has done precisely the opposite. Its actions have undermined the reconciliation process revealing a destructive agenda at odds with its rhetoric.

It's easy to see how the government's skewed attempts at reconciliation operate. For instance, over the past month, the regime has quietly been tightening the screws on almost every area of basic civil rights while targeting the opposition Red Shirt protest movement. The Center for Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES - "resolution" has become the ironic description of its title) has been in the driver's seat for most of these repressive actions. And the repression has stretched from mass censorship (over 100K websites have been blocked) through to the plain absurd - a recent decree stated that anyone placing flowers outside Thailand's prisons in recognition of political prisoners would be considered in contempt of court.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and other members of his government, some closely linked with the extremist PAD movement, have displayed a deep paranoia over free expression. This has resulted in some of the harshest censorship and abuses of lese majeste charges in recent memory. In an important new book, U.S. scholar David Streckfuss has found that the Democrat Paty-led administration already has the dubious distinction of having presided over the highest number of lese-majeste cases ever recorded in Thailand's modern history - most shocking is that the number of cases accepted by the courts in 2009 represents a 1500% increase over the average number of lese-majeste prosecutions observed between 1996 and 2005.

Media which fail to toe the government's line are under heavy pressure. Following the recent closure of the magazine "Red Power," one among many publications shut down in recent weeks, Pravit Rojanaphruk commented in The Nation, "Thailand is steadily becoming 'a censored society' where some trains of thought can be illegal, or even a crime, making speaking about certain taboo topics an exercise in political courage."

Instead of upholding its duty under international law to investigate the arbitrary killings of unarmed protesters, the Thai authorities have instead given promotions specifically to many of the officers believed to have been responsible for ordering and executing the crackdown. Deputy army chief Prayuth Chanocha - a zealously political hardliner known for his hostile stance against the opposition - has been promoted as the new army chief. Lt. General Daphong Rattanasuwan, architect of the Bangkok massacres, has also been promoted. The clear message being sent out is that there is no punishment or accountability for disproportionate force - at least if the victim happens to be wearing a red t-shirt.

But perhaps the ultimate sign that the country has slipped under the control of a military dictatorship is the promotion of Lt. General Somkid Boonthanom. Incredibly, this senior police officer stands indicted in the 1990 disappearance (read: presumed murder) of a Saudi Arabian businessman, an act which resulted in the rapid deterioration of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Considering that Thailand has made no progress in the criminal prosecution of other police officers suspected of the related murders of four Saudi diplomats, nor has it recovered jewelry owned by the Saudi royal family that was stolen in Thailand around the same time (and allegedly gifted to some of the country's most powerful families), this must rank as one of the most deplorable diplomatic scandals in the history of both countries.

The aftermath of Somkid's bizarre promotion is just one example of the growing international isolation that Thailand is facing should they continue down this same path (the continued reluctance to extradite Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout is a whole other story). Abhisit has promised dialogue and a desire to work towards a political solution, but instead has jailed hundreds of political prisoners. The Democrat Party has promised foreign partners that they will eventually move toward elections, but instead they have sought to cripple and decapitate the opposition movement as a precondition for any election. At the same time, there is growing indication that the administration is itself engaged in a campaign of terror designed to justify the continued recourse to emergency powers through a string of mysterious, unsolved bombings. Every time the government comes under pressure to lift its draconian restrictions on the rights of the opposition, bombs go off or are found unexploded.

Yet chinks in Thailand's international image are certainly emerging. It has been particularly heartening to see Germany's decision to halt the sale of of military equipment - in the specific instance, engines that power Ukrainian-made armored personnel carriers - to the Royal Thai Army, citing EU rules which prohibit the sale of arms to "governments that systematically use violence to suppress or deny the rights of their citizens." Thailand is finally beginning to be treated like the violent authoritarian state and serial human rights abuser that it is, rather than the sunny, smiling illusion once held in much of the West.

Until other major allies such as the United States, Japan, and other European states make it clear to the Thai elites that there are consequences for these open breaches of international law and indiscriminate use of state violence against citizens, they will see no incentive for change. Of course, one assumption is that international isolation is a price that the Thai elites are prepared to pay in order to maintain their grip on power. The potential ramifications of such a strategy are very worrying and the window for the international community to act before more state violence is unleashed may be tiny.

What is becoming clearer is that with Thailand's internal opposition being rapidly degraded by the ongoing repression, fewer checks and balances remain on the excessive actions of the Thai regime. The international community, and bodies such as Amnesty International (whose tacit acceptance of lese majeste imprisonments is problematic), need to implement a coherent campaign where it is made clear that the Thai regime will be held to account should they continue on their path of violence and oppression.

Faced with a regime that "cling[s] to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent," as President Obama put it in his inaugural address, the rest of the world has an obligation not to "extend a hand" until the Thai government decides to unclench its fist.

Robert Amsterdam is an international lawyer retained by the former Prime Minister of Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra to advocate on behalf of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD)