At the expense of children

The Nation, June 13, 2012

Thailand came under some unusual scrutiny at the United Nations in New York on Monday: it got noticed for not wanting to get noticed.

Every year, the UN secretary-general publishes a report detailing grave violations committed against children by armed forces and armed groups around the world. From Afghanistan to Yemen it recounts cases of children killed and maimed during hostilities, children used as child soldiers, sexual violence against children, attacks on schools and teachers, and the military use of schools. It can make for some fairly depressing reading.

But one of the unexpectedly sad revelations in this year’s report was that the Thai government has refused a specific request by the UN to be allowed to independently monitor grave violations against children in the embattled southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. Twenty-two countries – including Thailand’s regional neighbours Myanmar, India, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines – are covered in the report, yet Thailand is the only country to thumb its nose at the UN and refuse its request for access.

If the Thai government’s goal was to prevent others from knowing that children are being harmed in the southern provinces, then this approach is misguided. Since the UN was barred from sending its own monitors to verify the situation, the world body merely made use of the ample information provided by the media and civil society organisations.

The UN report primarily condemns the actions of Thailand’s separatist insurgents, who maim and kill children with bombs and guns. The insurgents also target children for recruitment into their armed groups, and use them for intelligence gathering, diversion tactics and arson attacks. Moreover, the report notes that the insurgents wage a violent campaign against teachers and schools, viewing them as symbols of the state. Insurgents killed at least 31 teachers and other education personnel in 2011, touching the lives and education of thousands of children.

The Thai government comes under criticism only twice. First, for allowing government soldiers to be present on school grounds to provide “protection”. In fact, this practice exposes children to the risk of attack and can interrupt their studies. The UN is correct to raise concerns. But even the Fourth Army Region commander, Lieutenant General Udomchai Thammasarora, has said publicly that this practice violates international law. Thailand should follow through and remove all troops using operating schools for military purposes. Nobody contests that the government must protect the teachers, who have become the front line of the conflict – but the objection is to troops using schools as barracks purely for their own benefit and convenience.

Second, the report notes that the UN has received credible allegations of children being associated with the Chor Ror Bor village militias to patrol villages, man checkpoints and identify police suspects. But the report also praises the Thai government for taking some positive action to deal with this problem, including issuing a regulation in February 2011 explicitly prohibiting the Chor Ror Bor from recruiting anyone below age 18.

So if the government has publicly conceded that both these issues merit attention, what is it that it wants nobody to see?

The Thai government should actually be keen to increase international attention for the grave violations committed by the insurgents against children since condemnation can undermine support for the insurgents from supporters in Thailand and abroad. It can also be effective in getting armed groups to change their ways. For example, in Myanmar, two ethnic armed groups, drawn from the Karen and Karenni populations, responded to the stigma generated by their inclusion in past reports by unilaterally signing statements making a commitment to end their use of child soldiers.

UN representatives in Thailand have sought without success to gain access to the southern provinces. But they should not take no for an answer. They should continue to press the Thai government for permission to independently monitor grave violations against children there. And until they receive it, the UN should use other sources of timely, objective, accurate and reliable information to expose the senseless killing of teachers and students, the recruitment of children, and interference with students’ right to education.

The children who are suffering the evils of the conflict in southern Thailand deserve the attention of the world. The Thai government’s attempt to cover the world’s eyes and ears helps nobody and is destined to fail.

Bede Sheppard is the senior researcher for children’s rights in Asia at Human Rights Watch, and author of the report “Targets of Both Sides: Violence against students, teachers, and schools in Thailand’s Southern Border Provinces”.