Among the contingents of soldiers manning checkpoints and keeping watch on the public throughout August, in the eve and aftermath of Thailand’s military-backed constitutional referendum, at least one took its work a bit too far.
The unit, on detail in Lamphun, just south of Chiang Mai, on Aug. 11 knocked a teenager off his motorcycle, circled him and took turns at kicking his head before letting him go. The reason? They thought that the boy, Ronachai Jantra (shown above), had thrown a bottle at them while riding past.
This is an everyday sort of event in Thailand, and it would not have attracted any attention except that it was captured on film by a camera crew that happened to be nearby at the time.
After the recording was broadcast on television (and online at http://tna.mcot.net/i-content.php?clip_id=qqScpqY=&size=256k), the senior officer responsible for the north, Lt. Gen. Jiradet Kocharat, said on local radio that the army had investigated and warned the soldiers about their behavior, and made them say sorry to the victim.
“Soldiers have to put up with things that they shouldn’t have to,” he explained. “When there’re a lot of people, and then there’s a lot of work and stress, they have to be told to use patience. And if there’s some mistake they have to go apologize and also make amends.”
The commander’s response to the incident points to one of the many deep obstacles to the establishing of both an effective justice system and a culture of human rights in Thailand: calculated atonement as a substitute for criminal punishment.
While rebuking his men, the general simultaneously exonerated them by noting that they had apologized to the teenager, and by suggesting that it was not really their fault that they get a bit aggravated at times. His remarks hint to the victim that he should be happy with what he got and perhaps think twice before pursuing a complaint, which is pending before the public prosecutor.
Although this assault was relatively minor — at least the boy does not appear to have suffered permanent injuries — the idea that a show of regret can somehow offset the criminal wrongdoing of state officers can be found throughout the modern history of Thailand in incidents both large and small.
“Let’s forgive and forget,” former civilian Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj reportedly told the police chief and other senior officers who begged his pardon at a contrived meeting after around a hundred of their drunken subordinates smashed up his house during a protest in August 1975. Unable to challenge police power, the elected national leader could do no more than joke about the many antiques and other valuable items that had been busted or carried off.
A year later the same police force spearheaded a massacre that marked a return to military rule. Although the broken stuff in the prime minister’s house had been forgotten and the perpetrators forgiven, the consequences of letting the police get away with this sort of wanton criminality inevitably reverberated onto everyone.
The current interim prime minister has made so many apologies — in his case as a way of pointing to the transgressions of his ousted predecessor — that they have become the subject of jokes and cartoons. But the matters deserving of apology are nothing to laugh about. Among them is the violence upon people in the far south, and in particular, the mass killings in the aftermath of the Tak Bai protest and Krue Se mosque standoff in 2004.
Although in these two cases six senior army personnel have been identified as responsible, none have ever been prosecuted. Three were found in a 2006 court inquest to have had command responsibility for the deaths of 28 persons at Krue Se. By law, they must be criminally investigated and should have charges lodged against them; however, they all continue to hold senior posts and there is no evidence that any will be brought before a judge to answer for their alleged crimes any time soon. Again, apologies have apparently helped to thwart justice.
This is not to say that there is anything wrong with being sorry, or that there is no place for it in the law. On the contrary, jurisdictions throughout the world acknowledge remorseful guilty parties. Even for the most serious crimes repentance is seen as an important factor. But importantly, it is relevant in determining a penalty, not in deciding on the crime itself.
“A finding of mitigating circumstances,” wrote the judge in the Rwandan genocide case of Jean Kambada, “relates to assessment of sentence and in no way derogates from the gravity of the crime.” It is the punishment alone — not the offence — that is mitigated by an apology. The misconduct must still be judged on its merits before remorse is taken into account in weighing up the penalty, if any.
Furthermore, for an apology to have effect it must be taken seriously. A court needs to be convinced that the person really is sorry, and is not just trying to escape a more serious sentence, or perhaps has been ordered to apologize by a superior officer. In some cases medical evidence has been used to show that the defendant has suffered psychologically and is demonstrably contrite.
It is unlikely that the soldiers who beat up Ronachai lost any sleep over the assault itself, although the fact that they were caught on camera and had to endure censure from a senior officer probably caused them some anxiety. Being forced to go and tell the boy that they didn’t really mean to kick his head repeatedly might also have momentarily wounded their superior’s self esteem. But as the many gaps and silences in Thailand’s history confirm, such episodes quickly pass without further ado or sanction. And that’s the trouble with these apologies: “sorry” is all there is, because it’s all there’s meant to be.
Soldiers who assault must be prosecuted, not excused, AHRC statement: http://www.ahrchk.net/statements/mainfile.php/2007statements/1153
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