Mark Kent, the British Ambassador to Thailand

Mark Kent

British Ambassador to Argentina

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Thailand

12th December 2014

Real rights for real people

This week I was in Khon Kaen, to attend the 7th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival. The festival was jointly held at Khon Kaen and Ubon Ratchathani Universities on 10 December, in recognition of “International Human Rights Day”, and was attended by a wide range of local community activists, as well as diplomatic colleagues from Canada, New Zealand, the US, Sweden and the EU.

This has not been a good year for human rights in Thailand. Severe restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly, and other basic human rights have been in place since the imposition of martial law in May. Limitations on freedom of speech have resulted in the censoring (and self-censoring) of the

The 7th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival in Khon Kaen
The 7th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival in Khon Kaen

media, NGOs, and academic institutions. One effect of this has been to lessen the quality of national debate in Thailand regarding the reform process now being led by Prime Minister Prayuth’s Government. Against this backdrop, it was good to go to Isaan and hear from local activists, whose views are rarely heard in Bangkok. On a personal note I very much enjoyed returning to Khon Kaen University, where I previously studied the Thai language for several months.

I grew up in a small village. I know about the hardships that rural communities can endure and how they can be overlooked and patronised. I believe strongly in equality of opportunity and an equal voice for all citizens, as well as equal treatment before the law. The UK is not the same as London. And Thailand is not the same is Bangkok. It was moving to see old people stand up and recount their hardships, and their determination to make progress. They may have lacked opportunities for a formal education, but they are not stupid. They want a better life for their children and grandchildren and their communities. They have every right to do so.

At the festival I spoke about the importance of freedom of expression to a strong democratic culture. Freedom of expression and a free media and social media are essential rights that allow citizens to be adequately informed and able to vote according to their own interests. Without these rights, and without opportunity for debate, any return to elections will not be meaningful. The NCPO claims that they are providing the platform for debate on reform of the political system through the National Reform Council and various local initiatives. However it is clear that many local activists in Isaan feel they do not possess the opportunity for their voice to be heard, given the current limitations on freedom of speech. One activist told me it feels like local people are being forced to wait as the military imposes reform upon them, rather than being actively involved in the process.

It was also striking that many local people feel that the current restrictions are beginning to infringe upon their daily life. Farmers with concerns over their economic situation are unable to organise to protest for a change in Government policy. Local groups struggling to protect land rights against corporate interests in their area are unable to campaign or effectively access justice. They feel unable to voice concerns about health and environmental issues. Without the participation of local communities and transparency in decision making, injustice and corruption can flourish. It’s not hard to see how limitations on freedom of expression and assembly have a real impact on local communities throughout Thailand.

For a democracy to be genuine, it must be inclusive. All citizens should have equal rights and the opportunity to participate fully in the political process, and to have a say in decisions that affect their lives. Democracy also subjects governments to the rule of law and ensures that all citizens receive equal protection under the law and that their rights are protected by the legal system. Thailand is a party to many international human rights conventions – including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – that are supposed to enshrine these democratic principles. Under martial law, these principles are not being upheld. If Thailand wishes to become a respected and active player in the global community it must take these issues seriously. The Isaan villages may not be familiar with UN conventions, but they should be able to benefit from the rights in them in their daily life.

Of course this is not to say that Thailand is unique in not always living up to its human rights obligations. International events this week have shown that Western democracies face human rights challenges of their own too. However, because the democratic culture in these countries is strong, the space is there for the dissent, debate and enquiry which leads to accountability.

It was great to meet so many enthusiastic and passionate activists in Khon Kaen. My thanks go to the organisers whose determination ensured the festival would go ahead when similar events have been cancelled under pressure in recent weeks. I believe that events such as these which listen to the real concerns and ideas of local communities are equally, and probably more, valuable than set-piece showcase events organised with international participation in 5-star Bangkok hotels, to which the diplomatic corps is invited to give its seal of approval. Events such as these ensure human rights remain a part of the national dialogue in Thailand even under difficult circumstances. I hope that we will have seen progress on many of the issues we discussed at the festival in time for next year’s International Human Rights Day.

12 comments on “Real rights for real people

  1. Several moths have passed after this article has been written and the current situation in Thailand has eased up a bit. Still, the concern for the plight of the poor farmers in the rural areas with regard to the observance of their human rights should still be monitored. A dialogue between the Thai government and the farmers can only go so far; only when true reforms have been implemented will there be true changes.

  2. Real People always spread his or her personality to motivate other with its nature or by his or her work. Fjackets

  3. What’s the point of complaining about human rights abuses when the UK is still selling arms to a Thai military govt?

    It looks like what it is – gross hypocrisy.

  4. The Ambassador’s comments about the situation in Thailand are valid. Laws such as LM and the CCA breach Thailands obligations pursuant to UN covenants to which Thailand is a signatory. It’s as simple as that. Thailand is in flagrant breach and the international community should not sit on its hands concerning this issue.

  5. I agree with Robert Twiddy…I hope these are you personal comments as a UK citizen I certainly, disagree with the basis of your comments, it seem to lack understanding of human rights and democracy. The UK is far from clean in its politics or its human rights or its politicians. So I think the UK has no right to voice such opinions. As an an embassador to Thailand, I question such manner, is it proper? It’s quite bad and disappointed me, as an ambassador, you don’t really understnad Thailand or most of us that represent Thai people, not those such few who are crazy for not even a real demorcracy. Those who think democracy is only election. I don’t have to say much, ’cause Mr. Twiddy had said above. I’d only like to express to you how happy we are with the martial law. we feel secure and many bad things have been strengthen and get rid off. We also regain many things including economy. Our GDP from 0.2%(first 6 months of the yr.) now growing up 2-3% each month and will be expected about 4%next year. Also tourist, investment figures are growingup this last quarter especially export while EU and USA economy seem slowly get better. We still have a freedom to speak or do any right things with respect of others. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can speak anything without truth or respect others, right?

  6. Fantastic thoughts and thank you for speaking out. Apart from the present troubles, Isaan is a wonderful region, with such a strong culture and incredible people.

    1. Personally, I’d prefer if you champion the rights of the raped, and savagely murdered British citizens, Hannah and David. How about championing justice and finding their real killers instead of hiding behind this charade of Thai justice. Even Thais know those Burmese are innocent so why is your Govt. taking the political and despicable easy option of hiding behind the show?

      Let’s hope to God they are not also murdered! I used to be proud of the historical legacy of justice and equality of my home country. To see it tainted and broken for all to see is shameful and saddening in equal measures! Think on Mark Kent, for all four innocents and sets of families whose lives have been destroyed. More so, think of those who are walking free!!!!

  7. Hmm, I hope these are you personal comments as a UK citizen I certainly, disagree with the basis of your comments, it seem to lack understanding of human rights and democracy. The UK is far from clean in its politics or its human rights or its politicians. So I think the UK has no right to voice such opinions. Again if it is you personally that is fine.

    Open corruption and sorting out the Thailand police is paramount and you cannot have democracy without a police and legal system that upholds the law of the land. Whether Thailand reforms or not, unless law and order is seen as essential rather than mai pen rai there is no chance for human rights or legality.

    No point saying things unless there is a system of action.

    In the UK we have gone the other way where anybody can say anything about anybody anywhere with inconsisent libel and disrepect for the law and state.

    So again personal opinion no problem, but I think you cannot have democracy where no one especially the police and the justice system uphold the law. I am old enough to have seen corrupt police in the UK after world war II when there was racism, no equal rights and no human rights so the UK has taken a long time to get where it is. Siam nah Thailand has a long way to mature as a democracy.

    Yours Robert

    1. The point is that nothing can be reformed satisfactorily without the participation of the whole of the Thai people. By all mean reform the police and the courts but why deny the vast majority of the Thai people to chance to be part of this process? For a vibrant debate on reforms all voices need to be heard, not just a narrow section of Thai society.

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About Mark Kent

Mark Kent graduated in Law from the University of Oxford. He gained a Master’s degree in European Law and Economics from the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, and has…

Mark Kent graduated in Law from the University of Oxford. He gained a
Master’s degree in European Law and Economics from the Université Libre
de Bruxelles in Belgium, and has a postgraduate qualification in
Business Administration from the Open University. He has studied Thai at
Chiang Mai University, Khon Kaen University and Chulalongkorn

Mark Kent joined the FCO in 1987 and has spent most of his career
working with the emerging powers of South East Asia and Latin America,
and with the European Union. He is a Fellow of the Institute of
Leadership and Management and has language qualifications in Thai,
Vietnamese, Spanish, Dutch, French and Portuguese.

Mark Kent took up his appointment in August 2012.