Thailand: nearly four decades of ICRC presence
The ICRC has been present in Bangkok, the site of one of its regional delegations for South East Asia, since 1975. Christian Brunner, who spent more than ten years working with the ICRC in the region and heads the regional delegation in Bangkok, explains the activities carried out by his staff and the ICRC's role over the years.
What is the ICRC's role during the present turbulent days, especially the past few weeks of demonstrations in Bangkok?
As a non-political and independent humanitarian organization, the ICRC focuses on the humanitarian consequences that might result from a crisis. Our main task is to cater to the needs of people adversely affected by violence.
We have been monitoring the situation on the ground and consulting with different sides to discuss the humanitarian consequences of the situation and any potential needs to be addressed. We have regular contact with the Thai Red Cross in order to support their humanitarian task in preparing for emergencies and, when necessary, responding to them.
In such situations, all sides involved must respect human life and dignity. Furthermore, humanitarian principles to minimize injuries and loss of life must be upheld. It is important that law-enforcement operations are conducted with restraint and in conformity with international standards.
Our main task is to respond to the needs of people affected by violence and to prevent unnecessary suffering. Therefore, if all sides to the crisis agree, the ICRC can offer its services as a neutral intermediary to help facilitate contact and discuss solutions to humanitarian problems.
This brings me to the issue of respect for medical personnel and units. We have seen how essential it is for medical personnel, facilities and ambulances to be allowed to perform their duties in treating sick and injured people. The red cross emblem and all those working under it, including Thai Red Cross medical personnel, must be respected. Any misuse of the red cross emblem may diminish its protective value and undermine the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance.
You head the regional delegation in Bangkok covering Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. What is the reason for the ICRC’s presence in Thailand?
To answer your question I need to go back to the 1970s when most of Thailand's neighbouring countries suffered from conflicts at different periods. Being stable at the time, Thailand was a place where thousands of refugees fleeing Cambodia and Vietnam found a safe haven away from violence and war. We opened our first office in Thailand in 1975 to assist those refugees. Later, after the UN and other organizations arrived and took over part of the assistance work, we focused on medical programmes and enabling people who had lost contact with members of their families get back in touch with them. One example of such programmes comes to my mind: the field surgical hospitals we ran in 1979, such as the Kaoi Dang near Aranyaprathet, serving Khmer refugees in camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. The hospital was closed in 1993 following the return of the last group of refugees to Cambodia.
Nowadays, the ICRC's humanitarian work in the four countries covered involves different projects and activities to alleviate the suffering of vulnerable groups, such as disabled people and minorities. Furthermore, the ICRC focuses on capacity building in different fields and with various local partners in order to increase their ability to respond to humanitarian needs. In Cambodia, for example, we visit detainees with the aim of assessing their treatment and living conditions. At the same time, to help resolve persistent structural problems, we work with the detaining authorities to build on their capacities in prison management so as to improve the general living conditions in the prisons.
Our delegates in Thailand strive to ensure that international humanitarian law is integrated into the curricula of training and educational institutions of the Royal Thai Armed Forces. To this purpose the delegates help organize workshops to enhance the capacity of instructors to teach humanitarian law. The ICRC has been sponsoring the participation of officers from the army’s legal and operational branches in law-related programmes and courses in the region and overseas.
Bangkok is also the centre for our training unit for Asia and the Pacific that covers 13 ICRC delegations, sub-delegations and offices in an area, ranging from Afghanistan to Fiji and from China to Indonesia. It caters to the training needs of approximately 3,000 staff members, both international and national.
You have mentioned ICRC detention-related visits in Cambodia. What is your approach there and do you carry out such visits in other countries covered by your delegation?
Worldwide the ICRC puts considerable effort into ensuring that the dignity and physical well-being of detainees are respected.
In Cambodia, our staff are based in Phnom Penh and work closely with the General Department of Prisons to build their capacities in prison management and other specific fields of ICRC expertise, such as health and water and sanitation. The aim is to improve the material conditions of detainees wherever relevant. ICRC delegates visited around 12,000 detainees in 19 prisons in the country in 2009.
In Thailand, the ICRC has been visiting people arrested and detained in relation with the situation in the South of the country since 2004 when the government accepted the ICRC offer in that regard. Those visits are similar to the ones carried by the ICRC worldwide to assess the conditions of detention and the treatment of the detainees. We discuss our findings and proposals in a confidential manner with the authorities concerned. When necessary, we also help detainees maintain contact with their families through the exchange of Red Cross messages and by providing financial support to family members to visit their detained relatives.
The ICRC also visited detainees in Thailand in 1969 and in several provinces of the country during the period from 1973 to 1979.
What is the ICRC doing to help vulnerable groups in the countries your regional delegation covers?
This region has witnessed several wars, and explosives remnants of war and land mines have killed and injured thousands of people there. Many of the ones who were lucky enough to survive were left with life-long disabilities. The ICRC has assisted centres in Cambodia and Vietnam to provide physiotherapy and produce prostheses, orthoses, crutches and wheelchairs, to help physically disabled people regain some mobility and economic and social independence.
In these types of projects, the ICRC takes special care to work closely with local partners, to use appropriate materials and to train national staff. In the longer term, this makes it easier for national partners to take over the running of these fully equipped and staffed workshops.
In Chiang Mai our office cooperates with more than 20 Thai government-run hospitals and medical facilities in the north and the north-west of the country to treat patients with recent war injuries who seek medical care along the Thai-Myanmar border. Last year alone 160 such patients were treated in these hospitals.
Other vulnerable people, such as members of minority groups and migrants, are also a matter of concern to the ICRC. In Laos, we have been discussing with the authorities in order to gain access to resettled minorities, including the Hmong population, to assess their conditions and, if need be, provide assistance, in cooperation with Lao Red Cross. The issue is under discussion with the Laos government.
What is the ICRC’s relationship with National Red Cross Societies in the region?
Our support to and cooperation with National Societies vary based on the needs of the people and the National Society's operational capacity and priorities to carry out humanitarian activities. The purpose of the support is to enhance capacity in providing humanitarian services especially in emergency situations caused by violence and/or natural disasters.
Coming back to the issue of explosive remnants of war and landmines, we have been working with the Vietnamese and Cambodian Red Cross Societies to build and improve their respective capacities in reducing the impact of such devices. In Laos, we support the Red Cross scheme to provide drinking water to residents in remote villages.