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


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 attitude’.

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 scrutiny.

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.

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