A high-level committee in Thailand is gearing up to recommend that people who enabled the killing of thousands in 2004 and thereafter be held criminally liable. It has in its sights former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and other parties to his “war on drugs.”
The committee is waiting for a new government to be formed in 2008 before presenting its findings.
At a glance, the committee seems like a good idea. Lots of people were killed thanks to government policies at the time [like the victim shown above], yet no one has been prosecuted. The anti-drugs war has quickly become another yawning hole in the country’s modern history. Any efforts to do something about it should be welcomed.
But the question that it begs is why did the thousands of murders, and a government policy to encourage them, not rouse Thailand’s existing multifarious investigating agencies? Why must this committee, with no actual authority, do their work for them?
Evidently, Thailand’s investigators have remained inert because there are categories of persons to whom the ordinary laws do not automatically apply. They include police, soldiers, certain bureaucrats and politicians, business elites and mafia figures. Most can conceivably be charged and tried, but only where a clear signal has been sent that they have forfeited their rights to special treatment.
The former prime minister and his allies lost their rights when they were ejected from government last year. Once fully protected, now they are fair game. The committee investigating the war on drugs is a part of the project to get them. But although scrutinizing their abuses is allowed, scrutinizing those of the army or interim government is not.
For one thing, investigating soldiers and paramilitaries who kill people is absolutely not okay. Military spokesmen vigorously rebut claims for redress when civilians are killed, such as the two young men and two boys shot dead by a militia unit in Yala on April 9. They were right to shoot, the army said, as the youths had attacked them with “sticks and stones.”
Four days later, troops killed two 15-year-olds and wounded three other teenagers in a neighboring province. Local and provincial authorities, including the governor, acknowledged that the soldiers were in error, as did the army. In neither this nor the former case have criminal charges been brought before the courts.
Investigating soldiers who assault and torture people also is not okay. Numerous detailed reports of abuse at army camps in the south have been swept under the mat. Most cannot be publicized because of the risks to victims. In July, coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin reportedly ordered that yet another committee was needed to look into allegations about the Ingkhayuthboriharn army camp in Pattani, saying that genuine incidents would be referred to “the justice system.”
Nor has the case of a boy assaulted at an army checkpoint in the north this August as yet been referred to the prosecutor’s office, even though it was broadcast on national television and recorded by the police immediately thereafter.
The reasons that criminal justice has failed in each of these cases are the same as those in the aftermath of the war on drugs. The accused are all exempted from the ordinary workings of law until and unless a senior official indicates otherwise. Where the perpetrators are low-ranking personnel it is occasionally possible, with persistent effort and a bit of luck, to make some progress. But the further up the food chain they are, the more difficult it becomes.
Take General Pallop Pinmanee. Last year, a Pattani court found that he and two of his subordinates — Colonel Manas Kongpan and Lieutenant Colonel Tanaphat Nakchaiya — were responsible for the deaths of 28 men during an army assault on a mosque in April 2004. Under Thailand’s criminal procedure, the case went back to the public prosecutor and then to the police for further work. After that the chief prosecutor must choose whether or not to file charges.
That’s the principle, anyhow. In reality, nothing has been heard of this case since it left the Pattani court. Letters and appeals from human rights groups in Thailand and abroad to the justice minister and others have gone unanswered. Meantime, General Pallop again took up a senior internal security posting and has said that he intends to stand for a seat in the upcoming election. Apparently he is not expecting to hear from the police any time soon.
The message to the public that such cases send — whether large or small, in the south or north and east — is that “no one can really protect you.” People learn from personal experiences and observing those of others that judges and lawyers, human rights commissioners and members of Parliament talk nicely and command respect, but real power is not with them. It lies elsewhere.
That’s why a mother whose son is killed by the police in Thailand today is less likely to go to an advocate for help than to a senior officer who can settle things behind closed doors. Even if she goes to the lawyer, she may be advised to do the same. A victim of torture in an army camp is brought not before a judge but to a regional commander. A soft look or a kind word from someone high up becomes more important than the letter of the law or a written order from an authorized official.
And that’s also why the special committee on the war on drugs will be a fruitless exercise. Like its predecessors, it has no mandate to address any of the systemic causes of human rights abuse in Thailand. It is just another cog in the wheels of selective justice. And selective justice is no justice at all.
By next year, the committee will call for a few politicians and perhaps some officials to be held to account by the very same agencies that should have acted in the first place. Will the new government pay it any heed? Who knows, by the time it presents its report, General Pallop Pinmanee could be a member of Parliament. Why not make him justice minister?