Thailand helps neighbors repress dissidents: HRW report

Human rights activists call the Southeast Asian nation increasingly dangerous for those fleeing persecution.
RFA and BenarNews staffs
Thailand helps neighbors repress dissidents: HRW report ro-democracy protesters, joined by Sitanun Satsaksit, sister of Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who went missing in Cambodia in 2020, commemorate the first anniversary of his enforced disappearance with a candlelight vigil in Bangkok, June 4, 2021.
Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP

UPDATED at 10:23 a.m. ET on 2024-05-16

Thailand, which was long considered a safe haven in Southeast Asia for exiles fleeing from persecution, has been helping neighboring countries repress refugees and dissidents, a human rights group said in a report Thursday.

During the past decade Thailand facilitated “surveillance, violence, abductions, enforced disappearances and forced returns,” while authorities also engaged in acts of “transnational repression” against Thai activists in exile, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its report.

“Governments in Southeast Asia have long been suspected of engaging in quid-pro-quo agreements about refugees and asylum seekers, colloquially known as ‘swap mart’ arrangements,” the New York-based watchdog group reported.

HRW said the government of then-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, a Thai army chief who led a coup that toppled a civilian government in May 2014, had repressed dissidents from abroad, including from Cambodia, Vietnam and China. A new civilian-led ruling coalition took over from Prayuth’s administration after last year’s general election, but it includes parties with military ties.  

“Thailand has long had a reputation as a sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. Even if refugees couldn’t stay in Thailand legally or long term, many people waited here for third country resettlement,” Elaine Pearson, HRW’s Asia director, told BenarNews.

“But now many asylum seekers and refugees do not feel safe in Thailand. This practice of forced returns escalated since the 2014 military coup and particularly during the period of military-led government of 2014 to 2023.”

The repression in Thailand had often occurred even though the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had recognized the dissidents as refugees, HRW said in the report titled “‘We thought we were safe’ – Repression and Forced Return of Refugees in Thailand.”

Pearson said the administration of new Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin should also investigate allegations of harassment, intimidation and forced returns by Thai authorities against exiled nationals in Southeast Asia.

“There are serious concerns about freedom of expression in Thailand. Certain politically sensitive topics cannot be discussed without the threat or risk of arrest or jail,” she said. “Since the coup we have seen an increase in lèse-majesté [royal defamation] prosecutions, with hundreds of people arrested and detained – often for peaceful acts of free expression.”

After Human Rights Watch released its report, BenarNews tried to contact Chai Watcharong, spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office, and Maj. Gen. Choengron Rimpadee, spokesman for the police’s Immigration Bureau, to seek comment on it, but they did not immediately respond.

Late Thursday, however, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a response to the report by Human Rights Watch.

“Although Thailand is not a party to the 1954 Refugee Convention, we have continued to take care of various groups of persons fleeing from conflict and persecution from other countries into Thailand to take refuge in areas along our border as well as in an urban setting,” ministry spokesman Nikorndej Balankura said as part of a statement to Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news organization affiliated with BenarNews.

“We are committed to respecting and upholding humanitarian principles, including the principle of non-refoulement. We have also cooperated with various partners to provide support and assistance as well facilitate durable solutions for these persons.”

Thai laws prohibit government agencies and officers from forcibly repatriating a foreign national, if there are reasonable grounds that the person could be tortured or disappeared upon his or her return home, Nokorndej said.

“This regulation should serve as a deterrent to the alleged actions, which if they actually took place, will be subjected to legal procedures under the [anti-torture and enforced disappearances] Act,” he said.

25 cases

HRW based its report on the analysis of 25 cases in Thailand between 2014 and 2023. 

A year after the 2014 coup, Chinese dissidents in Thailand started going missing, HRW said, suggesting that authorities had acted “apparently at the request of the Chinese government, for arrest and refoulement to China.”

In November 2015, democracy activists Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping, who fled China and received refugee status from UNHCR, were deported from Thailand shortly after their arrests. The deportations occurred even though Canada had granted them asylum.

Months earlier, Thai authorities deported at least 109 ethnic Uyghurs to China. They were among more than 500 Uyghurs who fled China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to Southeast Asian countries in 2013 and 2014, according to Thai officials and NGOs. Turkey had offered many of them asylum. 

Thailand’s then-military government, facing criticism from the United States and other Western countries over the 2014 coup, was keen to forge closer ties with China, analysts said.

Worachat Awipan, a scholar at Payap University’s Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace Lab, said efforts to force the return of dissidents to their home countries reflected negatively on Thailand’s international image.

“The problem of human rights violations against refugees and political dissidents from foreign countries, facilitated by our own state officials, is something that Thai society should be aware of and prioritize,” Worachat told BenarNews. 

“If we truly want to resolve this issue, we must strictly respect and comply with the obligation to not force people back to places where they are not safe, and seriously and transparently investigate and punish Thai officials who support these legal violations,” Worachat said.


While Thai authorities moved against foreign dissidents, Thai activists seeking refuge in neighboring countries also faced repression.

Several left-wing dissidents who left Thailand after the 2014 coup disappeared in Cambodia and Laos, with two found dead in the Mekong river, which forms the border between Thailand and Laos.

Detainees stand behind cell bars at the police Immigration Detention Center in central Bangkok, Jan. 21, 2019. [Sakchai Lalit/AP]

In 2020, prominent Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit was allegedly abducted in broad daylight by gunmen from in front of his apartment complex in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. He remains missing.

Human rights activists said they believed Thailand and Cambodia had agreed on his abduction, while both governments denied any involvement.

HRW said Cambodian opposition members and activists made up many of the cases it had documented in Thailand, practices that it said were facilitated by the close relationship between the neighbors’ then-leaders, Prayuth and Cambodia’s Hun Sen.

While the rights group said the existence of a “swap mart” between governments was difficult to verify with regard to Thailand, “arrangements with other abusive governments to facilitate transnational repression would be consistent with the evidence gathered.”

Despite the restoration of an elected government in Thailand last year, the ill-treatment of dissidents has continued, HRW said as it called for change.

“The new Thai government of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin that resulted from the May 2023 election has an urgent obligation to end the ‘swap mart’ and other such arrangements, and take action to resist and expose transnational repression of all forms by foreign governments pursuing exiled dissidents in Thailand,” HRW said.

“Given these cases occurred during the period of military-led rule, there is a real opportunity for the Srettha government to show it is different and make a commitment to resist and expose transnational repression by foreign governments,” Pearson said.

“The Srettha government should launch an investigation into allegations of harassment and intimidation of foreign nationals in Thailand and the role of Thai officials in those actions. 

Pearson noted that the new government pledged to continue with lèse-majesté, the strict anti-royal defamation law, although U.N. experts had raised concerns about how it is applied, including “use of pretrial detention to punish critics of the monarchy.”

Meanwhile, Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross-Cultural Foundation, a Thai NGO, called on Srettha’s administration to stop deporting refugees.

“The report by Human Rights Watch should serve as evidence for the global community that such violations by the government are unacceptable. Now, with Thailand’s Anti-Torture Act, which prohibits sending people back to face danger, both of these should make the government aware and prevent the deportation of refugees, as well as hold accountable officials who attempt to carry out such deportations,” Pornpen told BenarNews.

Nontarat Phaicharoen and Jon Preechawong in Bangkok contributed to this report.

This report has been updated to include comments from Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs in response to the report published by Human Rights Watch.


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