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Less Bangkok, more Geneva? Security cooperation, human rights and Australia-Thailand relations

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Less Bangkok, more Geneva? Security cooperation, human

rights and Australia-Thailand relations

Posted 16/05/2016 by Cameron Hill

In the same week that Australia co-hosted regional peacekeeping exercises with the Thai

military, which seized power in a May 2014 coup, it also raised concerns at a United Nations

(UN) review about the worsening human rights situation in Thailand. This comes at a time

when Thailand’s ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) is alleging that a Thai

woman has committed royal defamation, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail under

the country’s strict lèse majesté law, by failing to reprimand her son for a Facebook

message he sent her. In December 2015, a Thai man was charged for allegedly insulting the

King’s dog.

The peacekeeping exercises, ‘Pirap Jabiru’, have been held since 1998 and involve over 100

military and police personnel from 20 countries across the Indo-Pacific region. The desktop

exercises are being held between 9-20 May and according to the Department of Defence,

reflect a close bilateral defence relationship. They have also been highlighted as a vehicle

for promoting improved security values in the region—‘ensuring stability, promoting good

governance and human rights, providing humanitarian assistance and assisting in the

disarmament, demobilisation and re-integration of former combatants’. One of Australia’s

largest ongoing bilateral Defence Cooperation Programs in South East Asia is that with

Thailand, worth an estimated $3 million in 2016-17. The 2016 Defence White Paper notes:

Australia has a long-standing defence cooperation program with Thailand in

the fields of counter-terrorism, countering Improvised Explosive Devices,

peacekeeping, maritime security, logistics, capability development, aviation

safety and airworthiness, law and leadership, and English language training

(p. 131).

The white paper also notes that ‘the Government is committed to continued defence

cooperation, subject to progress in Thailand’s return to democracy’. It appears unlikely that

this ‘return’ will happen any time soon. According to Human Rights Watch, since the 2014

coup, at least 46 people have been charged with sedition and illegal assembly, there have

been 59 lèse majesté cases, and ‘the junta has summoned at least 1,340 activists, party

supporters and human rights defenders for questioning and “adjusting” their political


The dilemmas confronting Australia as it attempts to calibrate its defence and security

cooperation with Thailand in the face of a deteriorating human rights situation are not

unique. The US, which has a formal defence treaty with Thailand, noted in its latest (2015)

assessment of the human rights situation in the country that it is characterised by:

…arbitrary arrests and detention; poor, overcrowded, and unsanitary prison

and detention facilities; restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and

association; corruption; insufficient protection for vulnerable populations,

including refugees; violence and discrimination against women; sex tourism;

sexual exploitation of children; trafficking in persons; discrimination against

persons with disabilities, minorities, hill tribe members, and foreign migrant

workers; child labour; and some limitations on worker rights.

In the country’s conflict-affected southern provinces, the assessment notes:

..the emergency decree in effect in this area gives military, police, and civilian

authorities significant powers to restrict some basic rights and delegates

certain internal security powers to the armed forces. The decree also

provides security forces broad immunity from prosecution.

In the face of these criticisms from the US and other Western countries, the NCPO regime

has continued to develop closer relations with China. China is Thailand’s largest trade

partner and, despite a recent setback in relation to a major rail project, Bangkok is looking

to Beijing to help fund large infrastructure investments. China launched 45 new investment

projects in Thailand in 2015 and the two countries have pledged to double bilateral trade

over the next ten years. Bilateral security ties are growing and in November 2015 the two

countries held their first joint air force exercises. As the Parliamentary Library noted in early

2015, Thai authorities were among the first customers for China’s Beidou satellite

navigation system. In an illustration of closer relations, Thailand’s Prime Minister, General

Prayuth Chan-ocha, has reportedly instructed all his cabinet ministers to read Chinese

leader Xi Jinping’s book, ‘The Governance of China’, ‘a collection of 79 speeches, talks,

interviews, instructions and correspondence’.

As part of the UN’s May 2016 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session, the Australian

Government asked Thai representatives in Geneva provide more detail on measures to

ensure the consistency between the lèse majesté law and the country’s international human

rights commitments. Australia also called on the NCPO to repeal all laws inconsistent with

these commitments.

While Australia has previously raised human rights concerns in bilateral discussions with the

Thai Government and is currently pursuing a bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council,

Canberra is unlikely to jettison its established defence and security relationship with

Thailand over these concerns. As in the US, however, human rights issues will make

measures to strengthen security cooperation more difficult and subject them to enhanced


For its part, the US has expressed concerns regarding new policing powers granted to the

military, as well as restrictions on political expression in the lead-up to a referendum on a

draft constitution in August. The Thai Government has responded by saying the restrictions

are ‘meant for those who stir up violence’.

China did not submit any questions ahead of the May UPR meeting. The submissions and

discussions from the UPR session relating to Thailand can be viewed here.