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Thailand Votes to Outlaw Torture, Disappearances in Country Where Gov’t Engages in Both

Scores of political dissidents, environmental activists and rights advocates have disappeared since 2014 coup

In this handout photo from the Royal Thai Army taken on June 6 and released on June 7, a local official and military personnel look at Myanmar migrants found hiding in a water tank being transported via a vehicle in Sai Yok District, Kanchanaburi Province.(Photo: Royal Thai Army)
In this handout photo from the Royal Thai Army taken on June 6 and released on June 7, a local official and military personnel look at Myanmar migrants found hiding in a water tank being transported via a vehicle in Sai Yok District, Kanchanaburi Province.(Photo: Royal Thai Army)

Thailand’s parliament on Thursday gave initial approval to a law against torture and forced disappearances in a country where rights activists accuse authorities of engaging in both.

The proposed law, called Act on the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance, seeks to hold state officials culpable for abducting and torturing suspects, as well as for making them disappear via extrajudicial means.

The first reading of the bill passed 368-0 with one abstention.

It has first been tabled in 2016, two years after a military junta seized power in a coup, but it was not signed into law. In the seven years since, nine Thai citizens have disappeared in neighboring countries including two whose bodies were dumped in the Mekong River after they were abducted in Laos in 2018.

Last year, prominent activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit was dragged off the street in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh and has not been seen since. Thai rights activists have alleged that Wanchalearm was made to disappear on the orders of influential figures in Thailand.

“The torturing and disappearing of people by state officials is a gross violation of human rights and cannot be conducted under any circumstances,” Somsak Thepsutin, the minister of justice, said during an address in parliament on Sept. 15.

Scores of political dissidents, environmental activists and rights advocates have disappeared over the past decades in Thailand, several of them in the past few years alone.

Allegations of torture by Thai security officials have also been rife, especially in the country’s three southernmost Muslim-majority provinces where a separatist insurgency has been ongoing for nearly two decades.

However, suspected cases of torture have remained investigated, rights groups say.

“There is no credible and effective mechanism to help investigate complaints from ethnic Malay Muslims concerning abusive, corrupt or inept officials, problems that have generated discord among the population,” Human Rights Watch has said.

One reason for a lack of criminal persecution of officials implicated in allegations of torture is that their actions are not seen as criminal by their superiors, according to Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, a nonprofit that monitors and documents allegations of torture.

“Torture has happened in many parts of the country but has never been recorded as legal cases because the act of state officials were not considered criminal,” Pornpen said.

Rights advocates hope that the draft bill being considered by parliament will be signed into law soon so as to help plug a yawning legal loophole and facilitate the prosecution of security forces and officials accused of engaging in enforced disappearances and torture.

“To prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatments, Thailand must promptly amend the draft Act on the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance to ensure it reflects Thailand’s international human rights obligations,” Amnesty International said.

“[Thai lawmakers] must enact it urgently,” the rights group added.

The original version of this story first appeared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.