The Thai government appears to have exercised double standards in its recent treatment of two foreigners, namely Xavier Justo, a Swiss citizen, and Joshua Wong Chi-fung, a young Hong Kong activist.
Wong, 19, played a prominent role in the Occupy Central protests for democracy in Hong Kong in late 2014. Justo, who is 49 with a wife and young child, is a key witness in the scandal surrounding the Malaysian state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB. Justo was sentenced to three years in a Thai prison in June last year for blackmailing his former employer PetroSaudi International, a Saudi oil exploration and production company which was formerly a partner of 1MDB. Justo had leaked information on PetroSaudi and 1MBD to various media.
The Thai government has treated these two foreigners very differently.
Wong was denied entry to Thailand after he got off a plane at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport on October 4, detained for 12 hours, then sent back to Hong Kong the next day.
He had been invited to speak to students at Chulalongkorn University about the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
The Thai government was frank about its reasons for Wong’s deportation.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters: “Officials there [in China] have requested to take him back. It’s Chinese officials’ business. Don’t get involved too much. They are all Chinese people no matter Hong Kong or mainland China.”
Prayuth’s office said his government was “aware that Mr Wong had been active in resistance movements against other foreign governments, and that if such actions were taken within Thailand, they could eventually affect Thailand’s relations with other nations”.
Although the Thai government was only too happy to return Wong to Hong Kong, the Thai government refused to transfer Justo from a Thai prison to a Swiss one, despite the requests of the Swiss government.
In August, Justo was granted a royal pardon, which meant his prison sentence was reduced by one third, leaving him only nine months to serve at present. But later in September, the Thai government denied the Swiss government’s request to send Justo back to Switzerland.
If Justo returned to Switzerland, it is quite possible that he would make explosive new revelations about 1MDB from the safety of his home country. The Swiss attorney general has publicly alleged at least US$4.8 billion was embezzled from 1MDB and related companies. The US Department of Justice has publicly alleged US$3.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB, of which millions of dollars went into the accounts of someone called “Malaysian Official 1” by the DoJ. Based on the department’s description, that person can only be Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
On September 17, a Swiss newspaper, Le Temps, alleged Najib took the opportunity of his official visit to Thailand in early September to interfere in Justo’s case. Najib’s office denied the report, saying neither Najib nor any Malaysian official raised Justo when they attended the sixth Malaysia-Thailand Annual Consultation meeting, and insisted Malaysia adheres to a policy of non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs.
The Thai justice minister, General Paiboon Koomchaya, told Bernama, a Malaysian news agency, on September 19 that the government’s decision to deny Justo his request to serve the remainder of his jail term in Switzerland was made in accordance with Thai law. He said that, under his country’s law, anyone requesting to transfer the remainder of a jail sentence must have not less than one year left in jail.
“How can another country interfere in our internal affairs?” asked Paiboon.
Ironically, if Justo hadn’t got that royal pardon, he would have been eligible to serve the rest of his term in Switzerland, going by Paiboon’s rationale. The justice minister’s claim that the Malaysian government could not have interfered in Thai internal affairs is a glaring contrast to Prayuth’s public admission that China was the reason for refusing Wong entry into Thailand.
There can’t be one law for Wong and another for Justo. The law of any country must be seen to apply fairly and consistently to all, regardless of nationality or background. The blatant contradiction between the words of Paiboon and his boss shows the Thai military junta has a lot of work to do to convince the international community it is not practising double standards. In both the cases of Wong and Justo, Thailand’s reputation for transparency has already taken a dent.
Toh Han Shih is a senior correspondent at MLex, an international media organisation that provides news, analysis and commentary on business regulatory risk.