Last Updated: Thursday, 21 September 2017, 13:52 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014 - Thailand

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 3 July 2014
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014 - Thailand, 3 July 2014, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/53ba8dcf10.html [accessed 22 September 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

A relatively calm year in Thailand culminated in a series of violent protests aimed at ousting the incumbent government, led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Tensions boiled over in November when the ruling Pheu Thai Party attempted to pass a controversial amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother, 'red shirt' leader and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to return to Thailand, where he currently faces jail for corruption charges. The move provoked a furious backlash from opposition 'yellow shirt' supporters, consisting mainly of the affluent Bangkok elite and voters from the southern provinces who view Yingluck as a mouthpiece for her brother, and unleashed the country's worst political upheaval in three years.

This political division has largely overshadowed the bitter conflict in Thailand's deep south, where ethnic Malay Muslim separatists have led a bloody insurgency against the Buddhist-dominated state for over a decade. Nearly 300 people, including 132 civilians, were killed in 2013, bringing the total death toll to over 5,000 since 2004. Among the fatalities were several schoolteachers, children and activists, such as the prominent Malay Muslim leader, Abdulrofa Putaen, who was gunned down by unidentified assailants in August. He had previously been accused by the authorities of having ties with the rebel movement.

In February, the Thai government reached a deal with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) group, paving the way for peace talks brokered by neighbouring Malaysia, which has historical and cultural ties to the region. However, the process ended in failure amid a surge in violence and lingering doubts about the BRN's ability to rein in other militant groups. Some analysts say the conflict has entered a new phase marked by a sharp rise in casualties on both sides. Meanwhile, Thailand's political crisis has thrown future peace talks into disarray, delaying tentative plans to reach a partial ceasefire by 2015.

The Thai government, keen to portray the conflict as a domestic problem, often fails to investigate atrocities against Malay Muslims, a 5 per cent minority in the overwhelmingly Buddhist country. In December, the investigation into the 2004 disappearance and suspected murder of Somchai Neelaphaijit, a Malay human rights lawyer, was closed shortly after the authorities claimed to have lost his case file during a siege by anti-government protesters, although after criticism from rights groups it was subsequently found. Somchai's widow and fellow human rights advocate, Angkhana Neelaphaijit, has accused the government of covering up endemic sexual violence carried out by security forces – either by bribing the victims or forcing them to marry their assailants. Muslim girls as young as 10 are believed to have been raped.

Activists say that ethnic Malays face systematic economic and social exclusion, aggravating local grievances. This has fuelled suspicions of state complicity and provoked vicious reprisal attacks against Buddhist civilians, who are a minority in Thailand's three southernmost provinces. In May, HRW accused insurgents of committing war crimes by opening fire on a group of Buddhist villagers before shooting six people, including a two-year-old boy, in the head at point-blank range. In response to this violence, in some areas the army has encouraged Buddhist villagers – including monks – to form village 'defence forces', which analysts say have served to exacerbate sectarian tensions. Insurgent atrocities have helped perpetuate negative stereotypes about Muslims and contributed to the rise of Buddhist chauvinism in Thailand – a factor that has further entrenched the conflict in the south of the country.

The year 2013 saw an influx of Muslim Rohingya arriving by boat, fleeing persecution in neighbouring Burma. Thailand, which is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, refuses to process asylum applications, opting to confine Rohingya in overcrowded detention centres before deporting them back to Burma. In January, the Prime Minister defended the policy by alleging that the arrivals might join the southern insurgency, feeding a toxic narrative that associates Islam with terrorism. The navy has since been accused of forcing boats back to sea, as well as conspiring with trafficking networks to smuggle them onwards to Indonesia and Malaysia. A Rohingya woman was reportedly abducted with her children from a local detention centre and raped, allegedly in collusion with a local official.

Thailand's hill tribe communities, including ethnic Akha, Karen, Hmong, Lahu and Lisu, are routinely denied basic rights and services in Thailand, such as the right to vote, even though most have lived in the country for generations. Their voices have been predominantly sidelined in Thailand's increasingly antagonistic political climate. The future of some 120,000 Burmese refugees crammed into malaria-infested camps along the Thai-Burma border, the majority belonging to Karen and other ethnic groups, remained uncertain in 2013, with the government pushing for repatriation. But a UN study revealed that most refugees do not wish to return, preferring to stay in Thailand or seek resettlement in a third country.

The year's political unrest has further exposed deep-seated racism and misogyny within Thai society. The opposition Democrat Party, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva, has been accused of fomenting hatred towards Thailand's largest linguistic minority, the Isaan, who speak a dialect closer to Lao and form the backbone of Shinawatra's political powerbase. According to Sanitsuda Ekachai, an assistant editor at The Nation, 'sexism, racism, ethnic discrimination' is used by all political camps to 'fuel hatred and condone verbal and physical violence'. Although Thailand has laws prohibiting hate speech under civil and criminal statutes, they are rarely enforced.

Hostility towards Thailand's historic enemy, Cambodia, also resurfaced in 2013, aggravated by the International Court of Justice's decision to award most of the disputed land surrounding the Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia in November. Anti-government protests have subsequently seized on Thaksin Shinawatra's close relationship with the Cambodian leader, Hun Sen, to stir up ethno-nationalist sentiments. A number of unfounded rumours have linked Cambodians to violence against opposition 'yellow shirt' protesters. These stories are likely designed to undermine Thaksin's influence by mustering hatred towards Cambodians.

This carries implications for Thailand's one million Khmer-speaking minority, mostly based near the Cambodian border in north-eastern Thailand, as well as the thousands of migrants who live and work in the country. Migrants from Burma were also targeted for their ethnicity, increasingly through the use of social media. For example, in June a spate of gang-related attacks in Chiang Mai, blamed on its Shan migrant community, unleashed an online hate campaign to kill or deport the minority, known locally as Tai Yai, back to Burma.

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