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Thailand eyes anti-torture law ahead of rights scrutiny at U.N.

Despite divisions between government camps, Bangkok says third effort will succeed

Police officers face pro-democracy demonstrators demanding the release of their leaders in Bangkok in February.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thai parliamentarians are taking another crack at passing a law to end the grim practice of torture and enforced disappearances before the country again faces international scrutiny for its human rights record.

A special committee is examining drafts that will be synthesized into one bill in time for a second reading after parliament begins its next session in November. A final vote during the pivotal third reading is expected just before Thailand faces the United Nation Human Right Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in November.

These efforts to present Thailand in a new light follow a rare display of political unity in which parliamentarians from across the governing and opposition ranks put their differences aside to approve four drafts of the law in a nearly unanimous vote -- 363 out of the 365 MPs present -- in the first reading in mid-September.

"Both the UPR and the draft act will generate important momentum for the progress of human rights," Tanee Sangrat, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs' spokesman, told Nikkei Asia. "There should be no doubt of our sincerity on this."

To buttress its credentials, he added, Bangkok has also established the National Committee for Managing Cases Relating to Torture and Enforced Disappearances. The committee will "deal with alleged torture and enforced disappearances and prevent future occurrences of such cases," he said.

The latest steps come against a backdrop of two previous attempts by lawmakers to turn a page on these twin forms of repression allegedly used by the Thai military and police. The first was in 2016, when the country was under the grip of a military junta that had grabbed power in a 2014 coup led by powerful army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who now is prime minister. The bill made little headway in the National Assembly, which was then a rubber-stamp body of junta appointees, failing to be passed by the regime's whip in the assembly.

Activists gather in Bangkok on May 11, 2016, to watch a live webcast from Geneva of the U.N. Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review of Thailand's human rights situation.   © Reuters

The second attempt in 2018 made more headway, despite the military regime still being in power. A draft bill to ban torture and enforced disappearances passed the first two readings, but just before it was to face the third reading and final vote, it "mysteriously disappeared" off the assembly's agenda, according to human rights activists. That prompted Thai rights campaigners to question how serious Thailand was on ending the scourge of repression.

Not surprisingly, similar questions are expected to dog the latest bill, given the pro-military leanings of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, which heads the governing alliance. Moreover, the language of the draft bill submitted by the government in the latest round repeats verbatim the draft that the previous Prayuth junta submitted in 2018.

"The government has marked the bill as an urgent bill, and it wants to show that it is serious this time," said Ronnakorn Bunmee, an assistant professor at the law faculty of Bangkok's Thammasat University. "If Thailand shows progress this time, it would put Thailand in a strong position as a human rights defender."

But Ronnakorn is among the doubters that the latest push will cross the third-reading threshold. He reckons that politics within the government's ranks will be at play, given the impact the new law would have on the powerful Thai military, a key constituency of the Prayuth-led administration. "There is a struggle between two camps in the government: the military camp that doesn't want torture exposed and the camp that wants Thailand to save face through this bill," said the academic, who has worked with officials at the Justice Ministry on torture-related reports.

Pressure on Thailand to pass the laws is mounting from international rights monitors and campaigners, many of whom welcome the efforts to outlaw torture and enforced disappearance but say the draft needs to be improved. "The critical definitions of the crimes of torture and enforced disappearances are not in line with international law," said the U.N. Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia. "The law also lacks penal provisions related to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment."

According to Piyanut Kotsan, director of the Thailand branch of Amnesty International, the weeks ahead offer a chance for the Prayuth administration to "take the next steps and ensure the existing draft laws are further developed to fully comply with Thailand's international human rights obligations -- and then [be] swiftly enacted."

Such a turnaround, she said, would benefit Thailand at the UPR, a unique mechanism at the U.N. Human Rights Council for countries to face periodic scrutiny of their human rights records by the world body's member states. "The upcoming UPR represents a significant opportunity for the Thai government to show progress it has made and prove its commitment to outlawing these crimes," she said. "Only by officially approving the law and effectively enforcing it with no further delays will (Thailand) demonstrate its commitment."

Thailand's dark history of torture and enforced disappearances reflects the climate of impunity and political repression that rights groups have regularly exposed. One of them, the Cross Cultural Foundation, says there have been 101 cases of enforced disappearances since 1992, a year that saw a bloody crackdown after public anger erupted on Bangkok's streets against a military strongman who had come to power in a coup in 1991. The foundation has also documented 20 custodial deaths since 2007.

The country's three southern provinces, where an insurgency has been raging since 2004, are expected to come under more scrutiny to monitor changes in tactics by the military and police operating in that remote terrain. Local rights groups have documented at least 300 complaints of torture in the region, close to the Malaysian border, since 2014.

The forms of torture that victims or their families have reported include waterboarding, extracting teeth, pulling plastic bags over the head and beating feet with batons, said Anchana Heemmina, director of Duay Jai Group, an organization in the south that monitors human rights violations. "Most cases were reported in military camps."

But even a new law against torture would not be grounds for optimism for local communities, she said. "Even after the law is passed, they (Thai security forces) will find a new way, because of the emergency decree and the martial law we are under -- little will change here."

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