Thai junta bans press event on Vietnam minority persecution

BANGKOK - Thailand's junta Friday banned a press conference in Bangkok about the persecution of a Vietnamese religious minority, claiming it would affect "relations" with the country's communist authoritarian neighbour.

The order to cancel the Human Rights Watch event about the mainly Christian ethnic Montagnards comes ahead of a scheduled trip to junta-ruled Thailand by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung next month.

The cancellation, which was announced by police minutes before the briefing was due to start, is the third event in a month to be shut down by authorities at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand.

A few dozen uniformed and plainclothes police officers mobilised outside and within the FCCT building Friday morning as the nation run by generals who seized power last year sees a growing crackdown on free speech.

The HRW report, published to coincide with the planned event, accuses the Vietnamese government of religious and political persecution of the Montagnards, who have fled the country's mountainous Central Highlands in scores in recent years.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for HRW, said Thailand's order to cancel the press conference was "very worrisome".

The move "raises questions" on whether Vietnam asked Thai authorities to stop the event, he told reporters at the FCCT in downtown Bangkok.

In a later statement, HRW said: "Thailand is choosing to side with dictatorships in ASEAN while further stepping up repression at home."

End 'abusive' policies

The cancellation order issued by Thai police Friday stated officials believed the press conference may "affect national security and Thai-Vietnamese relations and cooperation".

"The event is not appropriate in the current situation," it added.

The FCCT said the police order was issued on behalf of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the official name for Thailand's junta.

The report at the heart of the issue found that "Highland people accused of religious 'evil ways' and politically 'autonomous thoughts' have been subjected to intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and mistreatment in custody" in Vietnam.

HRW called on international donors to urge the country to end its "abusive" policies.

Many Montagnards practise forms of evangelical Protestantism which has put them at odds with Vietnam's communist rulers, who maintain tight control over religion.

Their crushing of hill tribe protests in the Central Highlands in 2001 prompted an exodus of the minority group with dozens escaping across the border to Cambodia in recent months where they try to seek asylum.

Vietnam, however, routinely asks for their return, with those deported back to the country reporting abuse by authorities.

Thailand's generals have ruled the kingdom with an iron fist since taking over in a May 2014 coup.

The junta has banned public rallies, censored the media and arrested critics after ousting the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

This month the regime has already banned the FCCT from holding a debate on Thailand's deeply controversial royal defamation law.

It also stopped a rights group's panel discussion at the same venue about abuses alleged to have taken place during the junta's one-year rule.

The military says the putsch was necessary to end months of sometimes violent protests in Bangkok against Yingluck, which left dozens dead, scores injured and the government paralysed.

But supporters of the Shinawatra family -- whose parties have won every election since 2001 -- say it was the latest attempt by the kingdom's royalist elites, backed by large parts of the military, to dismantle democracy in Thailand.

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