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Group Presses for Action to Improve Human Rights in Thailand

Human Rights Watch says Thailand is showing signs of progress in its human rights performance, but the government needs to begin prosecuting rights abusers, including those in state security forces. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva government says it remains committed to improving human rights.

The group Human Rights Watch is calling for the Thai government to take "symbolic steps" towards addressing human rights problems in Thailand by beginning prosecutions of rights violators. The group says the government needs to focus on reform of the judicial system and police to raise public confidence in the institutions.

Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams told VOA the moves would be a clear sign of progress in the country's rights performance.

"We want to see prosecutions of human rights abusers," said Adams. "There are so many cases where the evidence is quite clear, where a government with the political will could ensure prosecutions start."

An earlier assessment by the U.S.-based group said Thailand is facing a trend of deteriorating human rights. Concern included Thai officials forcing back into the open sea ethnic-Rohingya boat people from western Burma.

The Rohingya from Western Burma and Bangladesh are often trafficked to South East Asia seeking employment.

Following a meeting with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Adams welcomed the government's willingness to debate human rights issues.

"The main issue that we are trying to push, is not just access to justice - because the government likes talking about access, which puts the burden on victims - but on the government bringing justice to people," he said. " And that means insisting on accountability, prosecuting soldiers and police guilty of violations."

But Adams says there are still few signs of progress in policy since Mr. Abhisit's government came to power in December.

"I think the environment is better - there is the possibility of some kinds of reforms and there is the possibility of some small steps towards addressing the problem of impunity - but there has not been a sea change," said Adams.

Human Rights Watch says the Abhisit government remains heavily dependent on support from the military, which is restricting reform efforts.

The group has been closely monitoring a five-year insurgency that has killed more than 3,500 people in the Muslim-populated provinces of Southern Thailand. It points to a "failure to address local resentment and frustration over abuses by security forces and injustice".

But in a recent address to foreign correspondents, Prime Minister Abhisit pointed to "encouraging signs" in human rights cases in the south.

"A religious leader was killed while in custody. Subsequently, the Narathiwat provincial court actually sentenced the officials involved," said Mr. Abhisit. "And the Army chief has stated very clearly that his men should not abuse the law and if they do they will have to be charged and they will have to go through due process."

Human Rights Watch wants more civilian control over the Thai military and an end to "abusive counter-insurgency operations".

It has also expressed its concerns about media and freedom of expression restrictions. It says conservative forces in the military are using cyber crime and laws prohibiting criticism of the monarchy (lese majeste) against dissidents, critics and journalists to limit debate.