Will Thailand Deport a Group of Dissident Musicians to Russia?

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Will Thailand Deport a Group of Dissident Musicians to Russia?

Unfortunately for the members of the rock group Bi-2, Thailand has a history of accommodating the requests of authoritarian governments.

Will Thailand Deport a Group of Dissident Musicians to Russia?

The Russian rock group Bi-2 performs in Atlanta, United States, October 27, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/Би-2/B-2

Members of a self-exiled Russian rock band that has openly opposed Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine were recently detained in Thailand and face deportation, but if returned to Russia could face severe consequences. Seven members of Bi-2 were detained by the Thai government after performing in Phuket last week after it was discovered that the group had issues with their work authorizations. The group, originally from Belarus, is one of Russia’s more popular rock groups, but when they refused to perform at a pro-war venue, their concerts were canceled and its members went into self-imposed exile.

The pressure to deport politically sensitive dissidents has been a chronic problem for past Thai governments and presents a challenge to Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, who has shown fresh confidence in courting both China and Russia in its attempts to attract business and increase tourism to Thailand. However, like the military government of his predecessor Prayut Chan-o-cha, it appears that Thailand once again might be willing to sacrifice its international reputation for short-term economic benefits.

Since their detention of the Bi-2 members, Russia has demanded their deportation. Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, argued that this was in Thailand’s interests, as “no one wants the problems that can arise with people who sponsor terrorism,” making a direct connection between their condemnation of Russia’s invasion and their alleged support of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Thailand’s reputation in this area is less than stellar. When Uyghur Muslims from the Xinjiang region of northwest China were held in Thailand’s detention centers in November 2022, it immediately brought back memories of its past deportation of more than 100 Uyghurs to China after pressure from Beijing. And like deportation requests in the past, human rights groups have urged the Thai government not to send them back. In the case of Joshua Wong, a Hong Kong democratic activist now serving a long prison sentence at Shek Pik Prison in Hong Kong, the result was the same, as the remarks he was scheduled to deliver at two Bangkok universities were deemed politically sensitive by both countries.

Thailand has an even worse track record of accommodating authoritarian states like China and Russia in the transnational repression of dissidents or diaspora populations. Given the range of tools at their disposal, freedom abroad is no longer guaranteed, and authoritarian states have gone to extraordinary measures to crack down and curtail free expression abroad. In the aforementioned case of Wong and other Hong Kong democracy activists, family members were harassed or interrogated. Thailand has also looked the other way as activists from countries like Laos have vanished on Thai soil, as in the case of Od Sayavong, a former member of the Free Lao group, who disappeared in August 2019.

While in other countries exiled dissidents may enjoy legal protections, Thailand has consistently adopted a defensive position. Because it is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, those seeking refuge are seen as illegal immigrants and are subject to immediate deportation. Its refusal to ratify the Convention allows Thailand to skirt its obligations under other treaties to which it is a party, such as the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Bi-2 case is unique, as some of the band members are dual Israeli-Russian citizens. If deported, under Russian law, or Article 205.1 of its Criminal Code, the musicians would be detained on arrival and charged with “promoting terrorist activities,” instances of which have increased dramatically since 2015.

Like the Thai military junta before him, Srettha finds himself in a predictable situation with ostensibly the same motivation as his autocratic predecessor. Compliance with Chinese security demands led the Wall Street Journal to dub the country “China’s enforcer” in 2016. Now a significant number of Russians are calling Thailand their home away from home, and Srettha may be not willing to risk a reduction in tourist arrivals or the flow of continued Russian investment. A performance by activist Russian comedian Maxim Galkin was canceled by organizers in Thailand because of fears it would stir unrest among more pro-Putin residents. Moscow recently deemed Galkin a “foreign agent.” Indonesia also refused the comedian entry.

While Thailand has an atrocious track record of protecting foreign dissidents, Srettha’s own approach is still unknown. Thailand’s relationship with Israel is also critically important, particularly after the events of October 7, when many Thais were caught in the crossfire of a Hamas attack that ignited a wider war in Gaza. Thai migrants are integral to Israel’s economy, while Thailand is a growing buyer of Israeli military technologies. That relationship is a likely reason that Yegor Bortnik, an Israeli member of Bi-2, is now bound for Israel, while the other six members of the band remain detained.

Srettha’s courtship of autocratic regimes, including Saudi Arabia, suggests more of the same pragmatic economic and foreign policies, but perhaps in this case, the consequences of refusing Moscow’s request may prove low enough not to harm the two nations’ mutually beneficial relationship.