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Thailand Bans Hundreds of Foreign Activists from Entering Country During APEC Summit - 2003-10-17

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has banned hundreds of foreign activists from entering the country before next week's meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok. He has also strongly discouraged local activists from holding protests during the APEC forum. The move is drawing sharp criticism from human rights groups.

Thai embassies around the world have received a blacklist of more than 500 nationals who are banned from entering Thailand during the APEC forum. The list includes members of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, activists, Falun Gong members, and individuals linked to terrorist groups.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has also ordered immigration officials at Bangkok's Don Muang airport to screen foreign arrivals and weed out those on the blacklist who may have managed to enter Thailand along with what he called other suspected APEC "troublemakers."

Mr. Thaksin has repeatedly warned he will not tolerate any demonstrations during APEC. He says NGOs that participate in demonstrations may find they will not be able to register their organization next year.

The Thai leader has also banned local media from asking political questions or questions about the protest ban until after the summit is over.

There are 21 government leaders attending the economic meeting, including President Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The government says the protest ban is aimed at protecting Thailand's image, and ensuring there will be no disruption during the summit.

Critics of Mr. Thaksin's strong-arm policies say banning protests is undemocratic and muffles freedom of speech. Manila-based academic and anti-globalization activist, Walden Bello, who was banned from entering Thailand, says moves by Mr. Thaksin to blacklist foreigners is ridiculous. "I find the ban on foreign NGOs and the ban on people like me coming into Thailand, I really find that quite unnecessary, an over-reaction, and really, in my sense, I'm quite apprehensive about it because I think it constitutes a very disturbing precedent on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly," he said.

Mr. Bello went on to say protests are inevitable during big international forums. "You don't need foreigners coming into Thailand to create a demonstration against George Bush. I think the policies of George Bush internationally are really quite unpopular," he said.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow defends the government's position saying demonstrations could deflect from the importance of the event.

"Thailand is a free country where democracy activities of this kind are allowed in Thailand but I think that for this APEC event we want to concentrate on holding a successful APEC meeting," he said.

Mr. Sihasak says protests serve only to show Thailand in a negative light, and focus attention away from the economic meeting. "We wouldn't want activities that would side-track us from the APEC meeting and that is the purpose of some of the steps we have taken with regards to the activities ban on NGOs," he said.

Somchai Homlaor, of the Bangkok-based human rights group, Forum Asia, says the ban itself put Thailand in a bad light, showing the government to be undemocratic to the international community.

"The government said that if they allow the protest, it will damage the reputation and image of the Thai nation, but I think to restrict and prohibit then from doing this will damage the image of our country because international communities will think that we are not open for them," he said. Mr. Somchai says protests and demonstrations give civil society and ordinary people a chance to let their voices be heard.

"I think that the civil society, and especially the poor, they are also the stakeholders in that development but they have no chance to express their voice and concern," he said.

Despite the ban, local NGOs and activists vow to hold four days of protests during the summit demonstrating against a myriad of problems ranging from the U.S. war on terror to the adverse effects of globalization on the poor.