BANGKOK - The legitimacy of Thailand's National Human Rights Commission has been cast in doubt following the recent resignation of two more members who claimed they could not perform their duties because of a pro-government bias within the group.
The move cast doubt on the commission's chances of regaining certain privileges with the United Nations and could complicate the new government's efforts to prove its democratic credentials after a tainted election in March that returned the leaders of a 2014 coup to power.
Tuenjai Deetes and Angkhana Neelapaijit left the seven-member commission last week, complaining of stifling new rules and policies that kept them from working independently. Their resignations leave the commission without a quorum for the first time since its inception in 2001 and cast doubt on its chances of regaining certain privileges with the United Nations.
Rights groups say Surachet Satitniramai, who resigned in 2017, cited similar concerns. A fourth commissioner stepped down in June to take another post.
"This string of resignations shows that the conditions inside the commission [are] not...in accordance with international standards any more," said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Thailand.
"It is an alarm bell that should have alerted all sectors in Thai society that an urgent reform of [the] National Human Rights Commission and the laws which are the foundation of the commission are in order," he said.
Commission in crisis
As the Thai specialist for the advocacy group Fortify Rights, Puttanee Kangkun, put it, "They are in crisis."
Angkhana said she was repeatedly censured for speaking with journalists and threatened with referral to the Anti-Corruption Commission for sitting in on a meeting between police and opposition politicians accused of violating the Computer Crimes Act over their anti-junta posts online.
"I [could] not work freely and independently," she told VOA.
Angkhana placed much of the blame on the National Human Rights Commission Act, or NHRCA, which the junta pushed through after the 2014 coup.
The panel used to set up subcommittees often to delve into thorny topics, for example, but can only do so now as a last resort, and rarely does. Angkhana said the subcommittees would draw on wide swaths of the public for input and that their loss leaves the commission isolated from Thai society.
Angkhana said the three remaining commissioners had also outvoted her and Tuenjai recently in deciding to strip away her mandate to monitor Thailand's deep south, where the military has been fighting a bloody counter-insurgency against Muslim separatists for the past decade-and-a-half. Angkhana said the trio gave no reason, but she suspects the military's criticism of her work played a part.
The commission did not respond to a request for comment. Calls to the office of the government's spokeswoman went answered.
Rights groups say the commission's problems also stem from a selection process the government has tweaked in recent years to favor the input of judges and bureaucrats.
Noting the lack of members from independent rights groups, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions demoted Thailand's commission in 2015 from an A ranking to a B. The move stripped the commission of its privileges to speak and share its views during sessions of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The NHRCA, which arrived two years later, makes the selection committee more inclusive. But Sunai remains wary.
"We have to bear in mind...that the selection committee was selected when the military was in power, so they are the product of military rule, they're the product of military dictatorship, which has done everything possible to weaken the National Human Rights Commission into a government propaganda machine," he said.
Local media report that the remaining commissioners hope to have the body back to full strength soon.
But with the same selection committee in place, Sunai doubts the commission can improve, adding that the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions is due to review Thailand's rank next year.
"Given the state of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, I don't see any possibility that it will be upgraded back to A," he said.
Puttanee and Sunai said real reform must start with a revamp of the NHRCA to loosen the criteria for commission candidates and give back to the public the say it once had in vetting them.
"Candidates for human rights commissioner should debate [before] the public, and [the] public should be able to engage, to give comment or opinion or get in on the decision," Puttanee said.
Angkhana said she hoped her act of defiance would help make a difference.
"I don't know that my resignation will affect the commission or Thailand," she said. "But it can tell the Thai society what happened in the Human Rights Commission, and I think that Thai society must have some mechanism to not allow it to happen again."