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Thailand’s political rights rating declined from 3 to 7, civil liberties rating from 3 to 4, and status from Partly Free to Not Free, due to a September military coup that ousted democratically elected leader Thaksin Shinawatra, abrogated the constitution, dissolved parliament and the Constitutional Court, and resulted in new restrictions on media freedoms and bans on political gatherings.
Democracy was suspended in Thailand in September 2006 when a military junta ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and dissolved existing political institutions. The year’s crisis began in January with the Thaksin family’s highly controversial sale of the Shin Corporation telecommunications firm to Temasek Holdings, the investment arm of Singapore’s government. The move set off a wave of anti-Thaksin protests in the capital, prompting the prime minister to call snap elections for early April. While Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party secured a majority of the vote nationwide, the elections were perceived to be illegitimate because all three opposition parties boycotted it. Thaksin promised to step down for the sake of “national unity,” but a political impasse developed when the House of Representatives was unable to convene due to unfilled seats, and new elections were scheduled for October 15. However, on September 19 a military coup preempted the vote, ousting Thaksin from office and installing a junta led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin. The constitution was abrogated, parliament dissolved, and the Constitutional Court replaced with an appointed military tribunal. A number of restrictions on the media and freedom of association and assembly were also imposed. The coup leaders established an interim civilian government within weeks, with former army commander Surayud Chulanont as prime minister. An interim constitution promulgated on October 1 outlined a process for drafting a new permanent constitution over the next year, but was criticized for its omission of many democratic protections. While the coup was undertaken peacefully and initially enjoyed significant public and royal support, the inadequacies of the interim constitution, unrelenting violence in the south, a major dip in the Thai stock market in December, and bomb blasts in Bangkok just before New Year’s celebrations combined to undermine public confidence in the junta by year’s end.
Known as Siam until 1939, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation that was never colonized by a European country. Beginning with a 1932 coup that transformed the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy, the army ruled periodically for the next six decades. The military more recently seized power in 1991, but Thailand returned to civilian rule the following year, when the country’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, convinced the military to appoint a civilian prime minister.
Thailand’s export-led economy experienced strong growth in the decade prior to 1997, when it was dragged down by that year’s regional financial crisis. Amid street protests by middle-class Thais in Bangkok against corruption and economic mismanagement, the parliament voted no confidence in Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and replaced him with Democrat Party leader Chuan Leekpai, a former prime minister with a clean reputation. The parliament also approved a reformist constitution, which created independent election and anticorruption bodies and introduced the direct election of the Senate.
Criticizing the government for favoring the urban middle class over ordinary Thais, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former deputy prime minister who built his fortune in telecommunications, unseated Chuan in the January 2001 elections. Thaksin pledged to help poorer Thais hurt by the financial crisis by introducing inexpensive health care, a debt moratorium for farmers, and investment funds for each village. Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT, or Thais Love Thais) party won 248 of the lower house’s 500 seats despite a December 2000 ruling by Thailand’s new National Counter-Corruption Commission that Thaksin, then a cabinet minister, had falsified wealth-disclosure statements in 1997. In a controversial move, the Constitutional Court reversed this ruling and cleared Thaksin in August 2001.
Thaksin’s government won praise from many Thais for introducing programs to help small businesses and the poor. Low interest rates and populist spending programs fueled a consumption-driven economic growth spurt. Wanting to portray Thailand as a well-ordered country that was safe for foreign investors and tourists, the government clamped down on negative news, denied the presence of terrorists in the country, and maintained that Thailand was safe from the deadly avian influenza sweeping Asia. However, by February 2004, officials confessed that six million chickens had been culled and numerous human flu cases were confirmed. The revelations led to international bans on Thai chicken and widespread questions about government priorities.
Many of Thaksin’s moves undercut the reformist spirit of the country’s new constitution, and a number of observers even accused the prime minister of subverting the charter itself. While the constitution requires the prime minister and cabinet members to divest themselves of all business interests, many officials simply transferred these holdings to family members. Critics coined the phrase “policy corruption” to describe alleged efforts by Thaksin and his associates to use government power to enrich themselves. For example, Shin Satellite, a subsidiary of the Shin Corporation, in which Thaksin’s family held a significant stake, won an eight-year tax holiday worth $401 million from Thailand’s Board of Investment. In 2005, similar allegations of corruption emerged surrounding tender procedures in the construction of the new Suvarnabhumi International Airport.
Thailand’s four southernmost provinces, home to most of the country’s four million Muslims, erupted into violence in 2004. In January, more than 100 attackers raided a military depot, killing four soldiers and making off with 400 firearms in an operation whose meticulous planning and execution led to suspicions of outside involvement. In a series of coordinated attacks on 11 bases and checkpoints in April, insurgents killed five members of the Thai security forces, which responded with attacks that left more than 100 people dead. The most notorious moment thus far in the insurgency came in October 2004, when 78 of 1,300 people arrested for demonstrating suffocated in trucks while they were being transported to a detention center.
The government declared martial law and introduced draconian security laws in most of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala provinces in July 2005. Those conditions were extended and broadened in October 2005 and again in January 2006. Many Thais, particularly those residing in the south, were harshly critical of the Thaksin government’s hard-line approach, fearing that it would only fuel the insurgency and create fertile recruiting grounds for the international terrorist groups Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda, both of which had past links to Thailand. More than 2,000 people have been killed since the insurgency began in January 2004.
The February 2005 parliamentary elections marked a second landslide for the TRT party, which captured 377 seats in the 500-seat lower house and formed a government without entering into a coalition. However, rising inflation and interest rates, mounting fatalities from bird flu, corruption, the government’s general disregard for the constitution, and its heavy-handed approach to persistent fighting in the south all combined to fuel significant anti-Thaksin sentiment in the country by December 2005, particularly in Bangkok and the south. The influential King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who rarely intervenes in politics, even advised the prime minister that month that he should be more receptive to criticism, prompting Thaksin to drop a host of defamation suits against media mogul and fierce Thaksin critic, Sondhi Limthongkul.
For many, the Thaksin family’s 73 billion baht ($1.858 billion) sale of its 49.6 percent stake in the Shin Corporation telecommunications firm to Singapore’s state-owned Temasek Holdings in January 2006 proved to be the catalyst, setting in motion a series of events that would return the country to military rule by year’s end. Although the prime minister’s children justified the deal as an effort to protect their father from future accusations of conflict of interest, Thaksin’s critics accused him of prioritizing his family’s business interests over national interests. Opposition leaders led massive protests in the capital, with one drawing 50,000 people on February 4. Protesters were infuriated by the fact that the nature of the transaction—through the stock exchange—allowed the Thaksin family to avoid paying capital-gains tax on the sale, and that it coincided with the passing of new legislation increasing the limit on foreign holdings in telecom firms. The same month, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD)—a coalition of 27 civil society groups opposed to Thaksin’s leadership, including human rights and media freedom activists, privatization opponents, and trade campaigners—officially assumed leadership of the opposition campaign. February also saw dissent emerge within the TRT, and some ministers resigned from the government.
With opposition mounting in the capital, Thaksin dissolved the parliament on February 24 and called a snap election for April 2 with hopes of renewing his mandate. Over the next two months, the country further polarized between pro- and anti-Thaksin forces, with numerous protests held by both Thaksin’s “caravan of the poor”—supporters from the country’s rural north and northeast—and the PAD, with Sondhi and democratic reformer Chamlong Srimuang at the helm. The PAD worked relentlessly through massive rallies to pressure Thaksin to resign and even sought assistance from the king. Yet Thaksin refused to step down. The country’s three major opposition parties, the Democrat Party (DP), Chart Thai, and Mahachon, all saw the snap elections as a ploy that would allow Thaksin to sidestep the host of credible allegations against him, and they ultimately boycotted the polls, leaving the TRT uncontested in 270 constituencies.
While Thaksin’s party secured a 56 percent majority of votes nationwide, with strong support in the north and northeast, the election results reflected the extent to which support for the party had declined since the elections of February 2005, particularly in the capital. Voting is mandatory in Thailand; with no other parties to vote for, an “abstention” was effectively a vote against TRT. The DP actively encouraged citizens to vote “no” in the weeks before the vote, and in Bangkok, TRT received fewer votes than the number of abstention votes in 28 of 36 constituencies. In what he portrayed as a bid for national unity, Thaksin promised to step down as prime minister, but stated that he would retain his position as leader of the TRT party as well as his seat in the lower house. Unsatisfied with such an incomplete exit from politics, the PAD continued protesting under a new name, the Assembly of the People for Democracy, and lobbied the king to invoke Article 7 of the constitution to install a royally appointed government of national unity. Meanwhile, 1,477 candidates—without party affiliations per Thai laws—contested the Senate elections on April 19.
With the results of 40 seats in the House, mostly in the south, rendered invalid because the TRT failed to secure the required 20 percent of registered voters, and a constitutional requirement that the House of Representatives convene with all members within 30 days of the elections, the country faced a political impasse. While he refused the PAD’s demands to invoke Article 7, in May the king called on the courts to rule the April 2 elections unconstitutional and they complied. New parliamentary elections were scheduled for October 15, but it remained uncertain whether they would be held, since both the TRT and the DP faced the possibility of dissolution; the attorney general had charged them with unconstitutional acts in the April balloting, citing the TRT for allegedly paying small parties to contest the elections and the DP for boycotting the vote and thus abandoning the democratic process. When Thaksin resumed the position of caretaker prime minister in June, claiming the country’s drifting economy necessitated his return, charges were brought against him as well, on the grounds that his leave of absence was illegal. The Thaksin caretaker government’s heavy-handed response that month to a major spike in violence in the south, with the rate of bombings reaching 50 per day, further fueled public antipathy.
Political uncertainty reigned throughout the summer, with the Constitutional Court announcing in July that it would consider the parties’ cases but that they could take up to six months to decide. Thais generally remained unsure of Thaksin’s political intentions, with the prime minister simultaneously maintaining that he would step down and that he would run for his TRT seat in parliament in the fall. Roughly a month prior to the scheduled elections, however, the Council for Democratic Reform (CDR), a military junta later dubbed the Council for National Security (CNS), staged a coup. It ousted Thaksin from office, installed a military-led government, and declared martial law across the country. In explaining the coup, top army general Sonthi Boonyaratglin cited government corruption, Thaksin’s lack of regard for the constitution and the king, and his national divisiveness. While promising to return Thailand to a more genuine democracy, the CNS dissolved parliament, abrogated the constitution, and replaced the Constitutional Court with an appointed tribunal. Within two weeks, Surayud Chulanont, a former army commander and member of the Privy Council, was appointed prime minister, and a 25-member cabinet comprised mainly of ex-bureaucrats was assembled.
The coup was generally peaceful and initially enjoyed widespread public support as well as official endorsement by the king, who publicly expressed his backing “for the sake of peace and national unity.” However, while the junta conveyed its intentions to return power to the people within a year, no official dates had been set for elections by the end of 2006. Moreover, the CDR took a number of steps in the coup’s immediate aftermath to reverse the country’s recent democratic progress and curb the political rights and civil liberties of Thai citizens. All political activity was suspended, and significant restrictions were imposed on the media, particularly the government-run broadcast sector, preventing public discussion of the coup itself and silencing opposition to the new military regime. Broadcast outlets in Thaksin strongholds were specifically targeted, with more than 300 radio stations in three provinces closed down in just a few days.
An interim constitution, promulgated on October 1 as promised, was widely criticized for falling short of the democratic guarantees of the 1997 constitution and failing to reverse the host of restrictions on political activity and freedom of the press and assembly that had been implemented in the days after the coup. In practice, however, many of these restrictions were loosely enforced, particularly toward the end of the year, and martial law was lifted in more than half of the country’s provinces in November. Martial law was maintained in a number of provinces in the north and northeast where support for Thaksin remained strong. The interim charter also replaced the Senate and the House with a National Assembly fully appointed by the king, and gave the CNS near-complete control of an outlined process for drafting a new permanent constitution, although a referendum on the new draft was promised.
Thaksin, who was in New York at the time of the coup, remained in exile through the end of the year. The TRT party splintered just weeks following the coup when more than 60 former ministers and lawmakers issued their resignations as the CNS pushed forward with investigations of systemic graft under Thaksin’s leadership.
The new leadership’s openness to dialogue with the southern insurgents, coupled with the fact that the chairman of the CNS, Sonthi Boonyaratglin, was himself a Muslim, initially raised hopes that the military government might achieve greater progress toward reconciliation in the south. However, the fighting failed to relent through the rest of the year. Unrest reached Bangkok on December 31, when a series of bombings killed two people, injured 12, and undermined public confidence in the CNS. Some suspected Thaksin supporters of mounting the attacks.
The September coup brought a shift in the country’s economic policy from Thaksin’s emphasis on economic expansion at all costs to a self-sufficiency model publicly advocated by Surayud soon after he took office. Thaksin’s more controversial efforts toward privatization and trade liberalization were expected to be abandoned. The CNS government’s December attempt to impose capital controls to curb massive appreciation in the local currency caused Thai stocks to suffer their greatest plummet in a single day since 1980, taking a toll on the country’s credibility with international investors.
The CNS was condemned internationally for removing a democratically elected government, but the coup generally had little impact on Thailand’s relations with traditional foreign allies and its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) partners.
Thailand is not an electoral democracy. Prior to the September 2006 military coup, the 1997 constitution mandated a parliamentary system with a bicameral legislature, including a House of Representatives with 500 members elected for four-year terms, and a Senate with 200 members elected for six-year terms. After national parliamentary elections, the head of the party that formed a majority in parliament became prime minister. When it ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office in September, the CDR abrogated the 1997 constitution, the most democratic in the country’s history, and dissolved the parliament. The interim constitution promulgated on October 1, 2006, replaced the bicameral legislature with a National Assembly of 250 members, all appointed by the king. The interim constitution also gave the chairman (Sonthi Boonyaratglin) of the military government, by then dubbed the Council for National Security, the authority to appoint and remove the prime minister at any time. A former army commander, Surayud Chulanont, was appointed prime minister within weeks of the coup.
The interim constitution stipulates the process for drafting a permanent constitution over a six-month period, granting substantial control over the process to the CNS, which retains the final say over the composition of the 100-member Constitutional Drafting Committee. None of the committee’s members are permitted to belong to political parties or to have been members of political parties in the last two years. The CNS promised that a national referendum on the final draft of the new constitution would be held, although the interim constitution gives the CNS the right to select any previous constitution and revise it for use if the new draft is not approved, either in the public referendum or by the CNS.
Thailand’s head of state, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is an unelected hereditary leader with little responsibility in day-to-day politics but tremendous moral and symbolic influence, particularly in times of national or constitutional crisis. The king exercised an inordinate amount of influence in December 2005 and over the course of 2006, calling on Thaksin to accept greater criticism and possibly influencing the prime minister’s decision to announce that he would step down in the aftermath of the April elections. While he refused to meet the PAD’s demands to invoke Article 7 and install a royally appointed government, the king was seen to have influence again in May 2006 to help end the political impasse, calling on the country’s courts to rule against the constitutionality of the April elections.
Prior to the September coup, Thailand’s multiparty democracy was dominated by Thaksin’s TRT party, which is generally described as populist and draws important support from rural voters. Three other important political parties are the Phak Prachathipat (Democrat Party), the country’s oldest political party, with strong middle-class support, particularly in Bangkok; the conservative Phak Chart Thai (Thai Nation Party), previously a member of the TRT-led coalition government in 2001; and the smaller Phak Mahachon (Great People’s Party). By late 2005, all three of these parties had begun to take strong stands against the TRT party. As the TRT party had consolidated its political dominance—partly through sweeping electoral victories and partly by absorbing formerly independent parties, such as the Chart Pattana and the New Aspiration Party—the opposition lost many tools to check the government. With 377 of 500 parliamentary seats prior to the April 2 elections, which were ultimately considered a farce, the TRT party deprived the opposition of the requisite 200 votes necessary to introduce a motion of censure against the prime minister (long an important symbolic measure, even when such resolutions failed). Under Thaksin, opposition representatives lost a number of seats on important parliamentary committees, and the government generally showed less patience for the basic procedures of democratic consultation and debate.
Extensive efforts were taken in the coup’s immediate aftermath to bar those opposed to the military government (particularly Thaksin supporters) from wielding any political influence. The CNS banned meetings by all political parties and barred the establishment of new parties. However, the interim constitution blocks the chairman of the CNS, members of the National Assembly, and those involved in the constitution-drafting process from seeking elected office in the general elections and the senatorial race for two years from whenever elections are first held.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that official corruption is widespread, including bureaucrats demanding bribes in exchange for routine services and law enforcement officials being paid to ignore trafficking and other illicit activities. Corruption ranked among Thais’ key frustrations with the Thaksin regime and was cited as part of the military’s justification for the coup, primarily because of the strong nexus between politics and big business and conflict-of-interest charges related to the Thaksin family’s ownership of significant national assets, particularly in the media sector. After seizing power in September, the CNS reinstated the county’s anticorruption commission, which had been dormant for more than a year, and established the Asset Scrutinizing Committee, a body with the power to seize assets from Thaksin and other former officials. While driven by clear political motives, the CNS moved quickly to investigate Thaksin’s alleged corruption offenses, and in December Finance Minister Pridiyathorn Devakula announced that the Bank of Thailand would bring charges against Thaksin to a criminal court for his involvement in a controversial land deal in 2003 and for the costly purchase of equipment at Bangkok’s new Suvarnabhumi airport. The military government also began investigations into the Shin Corporation sale in January. Thailand was ranked 63 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index. Access to information laws remained in force following the coup.
The September coup abrogated the 1997 constitution and its strong protections for freedom of expression. Despite heavy lobbying by a coalition of Thai media advocates and assurances by coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the interim constitution does not explicitly protect freedom of expression beyond a recognition of “basic rights, human dignity, and equality,” and failed to rescind restrictions on the press imposed in the immediate aftermath of the coup. Meanwhile, a number of preexisting restrictive laws remained in force, such as defamation provisions in the 2004 Thai penal and criminal code, lese majesty laws that limit criticism of the king, and others that reserve the government’s right to restrict the media to preserve national security or public order.
Prior to the coup, Thaksin continued in 2006 to launch criminal and civil defamation suits against harsh media critics, especially those covering his family’s sale of the Shin Corporation and the wave of opposition protests in the capital during the run-up to the April elections. By June 2006, Sondhi Limthongkul was facing 50 criminal lawsuits, largely for activities associated with his role as a leader of the PAD opposition movement. The status of many of these cases remained uncertain at year’s end in light of Thaksin’s exile. In a positive development, media activist Supinya Klangnarong and four journalists from the daily Thai Post were acquitted in March 2006 of defamation charges brought in 2005 by the Shin Corporation. The journalists had suggested a conflict of interest between Thaksin’s public office and his family’s private businesses, but the court ruled that public companies, like public figures, should be open to criticism in the public interest.
The CNS imposed a number of restrictions on the media just after the coup. The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology was empowered to “control, block, and destroy” information detrimental to the new administration, and the CNS issued military order No. 10, urging media cooperation in promoting “peace and national unity.” The broadcasting sector faced the greatest restrictions, since all radio and television frequencies were owned by the government both before and after the coup. All expression of public opinion and discussions of the coup itself were essentially banned, and all media were asked to stop broadcasting related text messages sent in by the public. Radio stations were ordered to cancel call-in news programs, and more than 300 radio stations in three provinces known for being Thaksin strongholds were closed down in just a few days. The print media and foreign outlets generally faced no new restrictions and continued to report on Thaksin and his whereabouts despite discouragement from the authorities. One website was closed down for serving as a public forum on the coup, and another was shuttered for criticizing the interim constitution.
The government has more generally censored the internet since 2003 largely to prevent circulation of pornography or illegal products and continues to block sites considered a threat to national security in light of ongoing violence in the south. Following the coup, the focus of internet censorship shifted to potentially disruptive political messages.
The interim constitution does not specifically protect freedom of religion, but Thais of all faiths have traditionally worshipped freely in this predominantly Buddhist society, and they largely continued to do so in 2006. Muslims in the south experience some discrimination in jobs, education, and business opportunities. Heightened violence related to the insurgency has contributed to tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities in the southern provinces, and Buddhist monks and temples there have been targeted for attack. A study by the government-appointed National Reconciliation Commission, released in early 2006, found that poverty and corruption are much greater factors in fueling the southern insurgency than religion and separatism. The fact that the chairman of the CNS is a Thai Muslim raised hopes that progress might be made in bridging communal differences in the south. Professors and other educators can generally lecture and publish freely.
Massive but generally peaceful protests of up to 200,000 people swept the country, especially Bangkok and other major cities, in early 2006 following the Shin Corporation sale and in the final run-up to the April elections. Thailand has an extremely vibrant nongovernmental organization (NGO) community representing farmers, laborers, women, students, and human rights interests. Activists affiliated with the NGO movement—especially the PAD—played a large role in galvanizing anti-Thaksin sentiment in 2005–06.
Freedom of assembly was restricted after the coup and omitted from the interim constitution. The CNS banned protests immediately following its takeover and prohibited political gatherings of more than five people. A separate decree prohibited all political gatherings or activities of local and provincial government officials, and the interim constitution was criticized for failing to lift such initial restrictions. Protests against the coup were nevertheless held in downtown Bangkok, with attendance ranging from 20 to 100 participants per rally. Military forces arrested activist Chalard Worachat and former member of parliament Thawee Kraihup for holding a protest against the junta in front of the city’s Democracy Monument. Otherwise, these decrees were not strictly enforced but reportedly discouraged many from organizing. In November, the National Assembly voted to lift the decree prohibiting political gatherings of more than five people, and it was officially lifted on December 27. Legally, private associations must register with the government, but in practice it is not required. The Emergency Decree for the three restive provinces in the south permits the government to limit freedom of assembly, but that authority was not invoked in 2006.
Thai trade unions are independent, though fewer than 4 percent of the total workforce is unionized. More than 50 percent of state-enterprise workers are unionized, however. According to the to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 Human Rights report, low rates of labor organization can be attributed to the fact that unions are not permitted in the sizable agricultural and informal sectors, and to efforts by the government and the private sector to diminish union cohesiveness. Labor laws allowing certain workers to join unions, collective bargaining, and protections against forced labor were unchanged by the September coup, but they remained poorly enforced. Exploitation of migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos was an ongoing problem, as was child and sweatshop labor.
Judicial independence was eliminated after the coup with the dissolution of the Constitutional Court, whose authority and jurisdiction were transferred to an appointed Constitutional Tribunal. All cases pending with the Constitutional Court were transferred to the new tribunal. While the interim constitution specifically noted that judicial independence would be upheld, international human rights groups cited the judiciary as one of the institutions most concretely affected by the coup. All appointed judges can be removed at any point, and with the nullification of the 1997 constitution, Thai citizens no longer have habeas corpus rights.
Pretrial detention—often up to 84 days in criminal cases—is a serious problem, and trials often take years to complete. Prison conditions are dire, including the shackling of prisoners and widespread torture and abuse of pretrial detainees by police and military agencies. State officials are rarely prosecuted for such acts. Human rights groups continue to lament the security forces’ use of excessive force in response to persistent unrest in the south. In January 2006, one police officer was sentenced to three years in jail and four were acquitted for lack of evidence for the 2004 murder of Somchai Neelaphaijit, a Muslim lawyer who had been campaigning against martial law in the south and defending five Muslims tortured by police. Human Rights Watch assailed the verdict for leaving the case unresolved. NGOs and the CNS criticized the Thaksin regime for failing to effectively investigate the 2,245 deaths that occurred during 2003 antinarcotics crackdowns and bring the perpetrators to justice. Disappearances and extrajudicial killings continued to occur in 2006 but to a lesser extent than previously. The arbitrary arrest of activists was widespread under Thaksin; political leaders close to him were arrested and detained following the coup.
Many of the estimated one million members of hill tribes have never been fully integrated into society. Half of hill-tribe members reportedly lack citizenship, which renders them ineligible to vote, own land, attend state schools, or be protected under labor laws. They are required to carry identification cards, their movement is restricted, and they continue to face forced eviction and relocation. An estimated 150,000 Burmese refugees live in camps along the Burmese border. Late in 2006, authorities detained a growing number of North Korean, Burmese Rohingya, and Laotian Hmong asylum seekers.
Rape, domestic abuse, HIV/AIDS, prostitution, and the trafficking of women and children all present critical problems in Thailand. Thai government records indicate that the number of domestic abuse cases per day has multiplied since 2002. According to the U.S. State Department, the Thai police reported 5,060 cases of rape nationwide in 2006 (through November), up from 4,693 rape cases in 2005. Rape is illegal and there are a range of penalties for sexual assault. Some 200,000 to 300,000 Thai women and children work as prostitutes, according to NGO estimates. Many prostitutes work under debt bondage, forced to repay traffickers’ loans to their parents. Authorities prosecute relatively few traffickers, and many police, soldiers, local officials, and immigration officers reportedly are involved in trafficking or take bribes to ignore it. One percent of adult Thais are infected with HIV/AIDS; aggressive prevention and treatment policies, especially a program launched in 2004 to provide HIV-positive people with antiretroviral drugs, have reduced both the number of new HIV/AIDS cases and the number of deaths from the disease.