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Human rights group urges Thailand to stop forcing dissidents home

BANGKOK (AP) — A leading international human rights organization on Thursday urged the Thai government to stop forcing political dissidents who fled to Thailand for safety reasons to return to foreign countries. authoritarian origins, where they risk being tortured, persecuted or killed.

In a new report, Human Rights Watch said Thai authorities repeatedly violated international law by deporting dissidents, many of whom were registered with the United Nations as refugees and awaiting resettlement in third countries.

The report, titled “We Thought We Were Safe,” analyzes 25 cases that occurred in Thailand between 2014 and 2023.

Many cases involved the forced repatriation of Cambodians, with the alleged involvement of Cambodian security personnel. But the group also documented cases where dissidents from Vietnam, Laos and China were “hunted down and kidnapped,” or “forcibly disappeared or killed.”

The report said that in exchange for tracking down and returning dissidents, the Thai government received cooperation from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in spying on Thai dissidents who had fled their own country to escape political repression.

Human Rights Watch called this a form of transnational quid pro quo “in which foreign dissidents are effectively exchanged for critics of the Thai government living abroad.”

The group said such arrangements, informally known as “bargain trading”, became increasingly common after the Thai military staged a coup in 2024, overthrowing an elected government. Military and army-backed rule lasted 10 years, until an elected civilian government led by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin took office last year.

“The Srettha administration should open an investigation into these allegations of harassment, surveillance and forced returns of asylum seekers and refugees to Thailand. It should investigate the disappearance of Thai anti-junta activists in other Southeast Asian countries,” Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press.

“I think there is an opportunity to end this practice and for the Srettha administration to show that it is different from the previous military-led government,” she added.

She noted that the Thai government is currently seeking a seat on the UN Human Rights Council “and with that comes responsibilities to protect human rights.”

The report cites nine cases of Thai activists in Laos and Cambodia who disappeared or were killed in mysterious circumstances.

The mutilated bodies of two missing activists were found in late 2018, floating in the Mekong River. In 2020, a young Thai activist, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, was kidnapped from the street of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, and never heard from again.

Thai authorities have repeatedly denied any connection to such events.

Dr Francesca Lessa, associate professor in international relations at University College London, said there are some parallels with the way autocratic governments in Latin America have struck deals to work together to eliminate their political opponents on everyone’s floor in the late 1970s and 1980s.

“Whether they follow right-wing or left-wing ideologies, these autocratic governments view opposition and dissent as posing a threat to their survival in power and therefore must be eliminated, whatever means necessary,” Lessa told the AP.


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