Thai Junta Blocks Human Rights Watch Press Con

Thailand’s junta appears to be squeezing down ever more heavily on the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. On Friday, June 26, it cancelled a press conference by Human Rights Watch over a report that isn’t even about Thailand but rather Vietnam and its treatment of Christian Montagnard minorities.

In recent weeks, the junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, has closed down planned discussions of Thailand’s draconian lese majeste law. On June 4, the junta blocked another FCCT panel discussion sponsored by Thai Lawyers for Human Rights on the country’s human rights situation. Directly after the coup on May 22, 2014, the junta not only stopped a discussion but entered the club, on the 17th floor of a Bangkok office building, to arrest a speaker allied with the ousted Pheu Thai government.

The club is considered the oldest and most prestigious in Southeast Asia and is known widely for its weekly forums, drawing speakers as illustrious as the Dalai Lama, now-jailed Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and many others.

The BBC's Jonathan Head, the club’s president, put out a notice this week saying, “The FCCT has been alerted to reports of journalists encountering difficulties when trying to start, renew or change their accreditation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Some of these problems relate to online registration on the MOFA website, and some to the accreditation process itself.”

The FCCT, Head said, “is already in discussion with the ministry of foreign affairs over some of these issues. In order for us to have a more accurate picture of how widespread they are, we would be grateful if anyone who has experienced problems to inform us and give us some details of what happened.”

Although the Human Rights Watch press conference was shut down, the 33-page report on mistreatment of Montagnard Christians can be found here: Persecuting ‘Evil Way’ Religion: Abuses against Montagnards in Vietnam

In a prepared statement, Human Rights Watch’s Bangkok office said the NGO is “disappointed that the Thai government has decided to force the cancellation of our press conference today to release a new report … at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. By stepping in to defend a neighboring state’s human rights violations against a group of its people and interrupting a scheduled press conference, Thailand’s military junta is violating freedom of assembly and demonstrating its contempt for freedom of the press. This action today is just the latest indication that Thailand is choosing to side with dictatorships in ASEAN while further stepping up repression at home.”

Phil Robertson, the Human Rights Watch representative in the Thai capital, said HRW had been contacted on June 25 by the director-general of the department of information, to “consult” about the press conference. The official stated it was a “sensitive matter that could impact on Thai-Vietnam relations and added that the Vietnam PM was coming on a visit to Thailand soon, and asked whether this couldn’t be done somewhere else, like Singapore.”

HRW replied that in fact the report was not about Thailand, that significant amounts of information in the report came from Vietnam government-controlled media about campaigns against the Montagnards and that HRW “has the right to express our views about the situation in Vietnam. HRW added that the ministry of foreign affairs was ill-advised to make this about censorship in Thailand when in reality HRW was focused on abuses against Montagnards that Vietnam needs to take responsibility for.”

Later, Robertson said, police officers contacted the FCCT saying that they had received orders “from above” that the HRW event would not be allowed to proceed. No written order from the police, the NCPO, or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been received by HRW, or we understand, the FCCT.

In the previous incident last week when the police closed down an FCCT event, according to Jonathan Head, when the club asked for a letter notifying it of the shutdown, the military refused, saying “first that we would never be allowed to hold an event on a topic as sensitive as the [lese majeste] law, and second that they would never give us a letter ordering us to cancel an event, because [they] feared we would use it in media reporting to make the NCPO look bad.”

The junta’s relations with the press have continued to deteriorate, particularly as questions to the gaffe-prone leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha, have resulted in embarrassments for him. Earlier this week, Winthai Suvaree, a junta spokesman, said the government would hold a meeting next week for 200 local and foreign journalists to "create understanding" and teach them how to ask questions that wouldn’t offend the former general, who named himself prime minister after the coup last year.