Amnesty International's Asia Squabble

An open split has divided the Asian operations Amnesty International, one of the world's most prestigious human rights groups, over its operations in Thailand.

Some 70 members of Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have sent an open letter to Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's Secretary General at the organization's London headquarters complaining about the actions of Benjamin Zawacki, AI's Southeast Asia researcher, and Donna Guest, the Asia-Pacific deputy director, in blocking a dialogue to be held by the Malaysia wing of the organization on the issue of human rights violations in Thailand.

Zawacki, in a brief telephone interview referred Asia Sentinel to a written statement saying it was self-explanatory. The statement said that "Amnesty International globally has avoided partisan entanglement in the Thai political crisis. Despite allegations from both sides that the organization supports the Yellow or Red positions and groups, Amnesty has limited itself to the human rights issues and has avoided politics."

However, other human rights organizations in Thailand have been critical of Amnesty International's Thai operations, saying they often have not been aggressive in defending opponents of the Thai regime and the military as the government has slid deeper into repression. Human rights campaigners have charged that the government is using lèse majesté not to protect King Bumibhol Adulyadej and the royal family but to quell legitimate dissent.

"Amnesty International enjoys the support of many rich, elite, overseas-educated Thais, many of whom bear Royal decorations," said CJ Hinke, the head of Freedom Against Censorship Thailand and one of the signatories to the open letter. "AI is considered to be just liberal enough to provide the rich a halo of concern. That support will only continue as long as AI does not investigate Thailand's own human rights violations in any great depth. Lèse majesté in particular.

For its part, Amnesty International Bangkok has repeatedly issued press releases and campaigned publicly for the release of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, an online news editor for lèse majesté charges, and demanded the repeal of emergency powers that were ultimately withdrawn in December.

The open letter complains that Amnesty International Malaysia had planned to meet on April 23 with Robert Amsterdam, the lawyer representing the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship – Thailand's Red Shirt opposition -- who had filed a case at the International Criminal Court against the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva government for ordering the military crackdown in April-May 2010 which resulted in the deaths of 92 people, mostly civilians, and 2,000 people injured.

However, the letter says, the Malaysia wing "received strong instructions from the International Secretariat demanding them to cancel the dialogue session. The action is a clear violation on the very principle central to human rights for which is on freedom of expression and opinion, toleration of different opinions and ideas, and fighting against culture of impunity."

Amnesty International, the letter said, "is taking the same approach by the Thai government in banning Mr. Amsterdam from entering Thailand, and thus violating Mr. Amsterdam the right to exercise his freedom of expression."

In the statement, however, Zawacki called Amsterdam over the past year "a paid advocate of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin (Shinawatra) and is thus very clearly a partisan of one side of the political crisis. This is not a value judgment on Mr. Amsterdam's position, it is simply a factual observation that implicates a rule that Amnesty applies in its work everywhere: remain neutral, objective, and impartial. Sharing a platform with Mr. Amsterdam would place Amnesty in breach of that rule."

Amnesty, Zawacki wrote, "must maintain its neutrality and avoid political partisanship. Thus, alongside discussion of the allegations raised by Mr. Amsterdam, considerable reference would also need to be made, among other events, to the thousands of extrajudicial executions as part of Mr. Thaksin's "war on drugs" and during counter-insurgency operations in southern Thailand."

Thaksin, Zawacki said, "strenuously combated Amnesty's efforts to seek accountability for these serious violations. While these infractions of international human rights law do not in any way justify the present Thai government's unlawful use of lethal force against demonstrators who may be generally labeled pro-Thaksin, they are crucial elements of any discussion of the Yellow-Red dynamic in Thailand, and in particular, of any discussion of justice and accountability in the country. Amnesty was not confident that a talk by Mr. Amsterdam, on an Amnesty platform, would refer to this context adequately."