Thailand police ban human rights conference on Vietnam minority persecution

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thai police 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 (HRW) 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 minutes before the media briefing was due to start, is the latest in a number of events shut down by police at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT).

The HRW report, published on Friday 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.

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

"Nothing in the report is relevant to Thailand," 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."

The cancellation order issued by Thai police said officials believed the event may "affect national security and Thai-Vietnamese relations and cooperation".

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

The move reflects an increasing crackdown on free speech in a nation run by generals who seized power from an elected government in May 2014.

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".

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

Thailand's military took over in a coup last May, ousting the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra after months of sometimes violent street protests.

They have since ruled the country with an iron fist, banning public rallies, censoring the media and arresting critics.

This month, the junta has already banned the same journalists' association from holding a debate on Thailand's deeply controversial royal defamation law.

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