The Thai military’s overthrow of the country’s elected government was among the most significant setbacks to freedoms in Southeast Asia last year, the U.S. said in its annual human rights report.
The coup and declaration of martial law in May 2014 sharply curbed freedoms of speech, assembly and the press, temporarily detaining more than 900 people without charge, according to the report released Thursday in Washington. In a preface, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry placed Thailand alongside China, Egypt, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia as countries that were stifling the development of civil society.
“The military overthrew a democratically elected government, repealed the constitution, and severely limited civil liberties,” Kerry said. “Subsequent efforts by the military government to rewrite the country’s constitution and recast its political intuitions raised concerns about lack of inclusivity in the process.”
The Thai junta seized power from the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra with a promise to bridge political divisions, fight corruption and improve people’s well-being. Coup leader-turned-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said he could allow for elections next year, if there is no dissent and a new constitution is put in place.
The report noted that the junta has stifled academic freedom, ordering scholars not to speak to the press and canceling academic seminars. The junta has also restricted press content deemed critical, leading to widespread self-censorship, the report said.
The junta on Friday sent police to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand to order the cancellation of a press conference by Human Rights Watch and to film those in attendance. The group was to release a report about abuses of minority Christians in Vietnam, an event Thai authorities deemed a threat to national security. It was the third event at the club this month that the junta pushed to close.
“They consider reporting the human rights situation in Vietnam as an act that would undermine friendship and co-operation between Thailand and Vietnam and can jeopardize national security and could potentially create disturbance,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. The cancellation is further proof that “human rights reporting is seen by the military authorities as a national security threat.”
The report also highlighted human rights concerns in several of Thailand’s Southeast Asia neighbors, including Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam. The U.S. cited the peaceful election in Indonesia that elevated Joko Widodo to power as a bright spot for human rights in the region.
Trade between the U.S. and the 10-countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations totaled $242 billion in 2013, ranking the bloc fourth, behind China, Canada and Mexico. Opponents of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership cited the human rights records of Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam as a reason for refusing fast-track negotiating approval for the trade talks, which U.S. President Barack Obama secured from Congress on Wednesday.
The rights report was released four months past a Feb. 25 congressional deadline and was published one day after Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and their Chinese counterparts concluded annual strategic talks in Washington. Republican lawmakers have accused the administration of delaying to smooth the way for the China meetings and avoid derailing nuclear talks with Iran.
The U.S. called rights abuses affecting the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state “a severely troubling counterpoint to the broader trend of progress since” President Thein Sein began instituting reforms in 2011. Authorities made no meaningful efforts to help those displaced by ethnic violence in the area and subjected many to arbitrary detention and torture, it said.
In Malaysia, the report cited “the continued politically motivated prosecution of opposition coalition leader Anwar Ibrahim” as evidence of local restrictions on freedom of expression in the country. Anwar is serving a five-year jail sentence on a sodomy conviction that he says was politically motivated.
Vietnam had yet to assure the due process of citizens, including protections against arbitrary detention, the report said.
Both countries are among the 12 participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks.
Human rights groups praised the report as an objective assessment of the performance of U.S. allies and enemies. The problem, said John Sifton, an advocacy director at Human Rights Watch in Washington, is that the government “too often disregards its findings in formulating U.S. foreign policy.”