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The Nation-EDITORIAL: Banning labou

Subject: The Nation-EDITORIAL: Banning labour meet is an abysmal move

The Nation May 24, 1999.
Editorial & Opinion

EDITORIAL: Banning labour meet is an abysmal move

IT is disgraceful that Thailand decided to ban an international trade union
meeting this week on human rights in Burma without good reason. It is
actions such as this that can leave a long-lasting scar on Thailand's good
record of promotion of human rights. As Thailand is reaching out and using
its burgeoning democracy and openness to attract foreign assistance and
investment, and of course sympathy, certain quarters in the Thai bureaucracy
view the growing freedom in the country as a direct threat to them. They
want to maintain the status quo.

Despite Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan giving the green light, officials of
the Ministry of Labour and the National Security Council conspired and
banned the meeting. It was a big blow to Thailand's reputation as a
democratic country which respects freedom of expression. The subsequent
explanations by officials for banning the conference were lousy. This
meeting, to focus exclusively on human rights violations and forced labour,
was supposed to be among non-government officials. Governments do not belong
to trade unions. Representatives from the Rangoon regime were not eligible

Thai-Burma relations are important and efforts should continue to improve
the friendship. But that does not mean that anything related to Burma on the
Thai soil should be subjected to censorship or banning. The union gathering,
which was supposed to be attended by 130 delegates, would have contributed
to the understanding of the growing oppression in Burma. It would also
highlight the real situation there. As the Asean-EU joint commission is
currently holding its meeting here, the outcome of the unions' deliberations
would have provided additional information on Burma to the EU delegation.

Last week, Amnesty International slammed Asean for holding its annual
meeting in Rangoon because of the junta's forced labour policy. Ethnic
minorities have been forced to act as porters for the military and to work
on public projects. The union meeting here this week would have provided a
comprehensive picture of Burma's modern slavery.

Thailand has come a long way, but it still has a distance to travel to
become a civil society. We have to be serious about human and democratic
rights. We cannot afford a knee-jerk reaction as in the past. Changing our
mind at will, without any consistency, is a recipe for disaster, which
Thailand must avoid at all cost.

The Chuan government has recently been acting funny in human rights-related
issues, not to mention the current wrangling over the broadcasting bill.
Like it or not, this ban of the labour meeting will cause Thailand a lot of
damage, beyond Deputy Prime Minister Supachai Panitchpakdi's ongoing bid for
leader of the World Trade Organisation. The ban will haunt Thailand for
years to come, just as our past policies towards child labour and overall
labour standards still do -- this is being used by the anti-Supachai
lobbyists in the United States.

The Thai government has to be accountable to its citizens. By banning this
union meeting, the authorities have violated the rights of Thais to assemble
freely. The government needs to provide further explanation of why it has
taken this egregious step. As with many silly decisions in the past, some
lower-ranking officials probably made their own decisions without consulting
their superiors. If that is the case, those officials need to be reprimanded
without delay.

We have a new constitution that protects the individual's freedom of
expression and assembly and the authorities have to uphold those rights. In
future, there will be more and more such meetings that will focus on issues
of human rights and democracy. Whatever government is in power must not
react in a similar manner to the Chuan administration. Otherwise all the
good work that has been done to date will come to mean nothing.

The Nation