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Criticize Vietnam's rights record – just not in Thailand

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Paris-based rights activists were forced to cancel a press conference here Monday after Thailand refused them entry.

The topic? Vietnam’s human rights record over the last year when it has held the rotating presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). According to the International Federation for Human Rights, the press conference would have examined Vietnam’s record and offered proposals for improvement.

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Blocking debate on Vietnam’s rights record represents a break from Thailand’s tolerant tradition. It also serves as a reminder of how governments seek to control debate both inside and outside their borders. This is why the Dalai Lama is no longer welcome in countries that want to be on good terms with Beijing.

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The two speakers had obtained visas for Thailand but were later told they could not enter the country. They run the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, an affiliate of the Paris-based federation.

So why does Thailand care? The official answer is that the government doesn’t allow organizations to use Thailand as a base to undermine other countries.

On Sunday, a foreign ministry spokesman wrote to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT), the host of the Vietnam event, asking the club to respect this policy.

The FCCT refused to cancel the press conference, which had been booked last month. But the speakers were told they wouldn’t be allowed into Thailand, so the event was called off.

As a regional hub for aid organizations and human rights-oriented groups, Bangkok is seen as more open to critical debate on regional affairs than more authoritarian countries like Vietnam. Its reputation has slipped, though, during five years of political turmoil, as media censorship and other forms of repression have increased sharply. The nation's own human rights practices have come under criticism in recent years, as in 2009 when it was discovered that Thai troops had towed nearly 1,000 Muslim refugees from Burma (Myanmar) and out to sea and abandoned them with little food or water.

Vietnam will no doubt be quietly pleased with Thailand’s action. It’s not clear what, if anything, Thailand might expect in return, though solidarity with Vietnam might prove useful in Thailand’s border dispute with Cambodia, which lies between the two countries. Intra-ASEAN politics are another explanation.

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Thailand’s other problematic neighbor Burma doesn’t seem to enjoy the same diplomatic cover. Numerous activist groups use Thailand as a base to harangue Burma’s military junta and regularly hold press conferences at the FCCT. Political opposition figures from other ASEAN countries have also spoken at the club.