A lot of talk in Thailand these days is about the prospects for a new “war on drugs,” following on from the state-sponsored murders of people supposedly buying and selling amphetamines in 2003.
Although only a few killings have so far been reported in the weeks following the current prime minister’s and interior minister’s announcements that the war would resume, their enthusiasm for its methods does not seem to have been dampened by its manifest lack of success.
There is persistent argument about the numbers of persons killed and circumstances under which they died last time around. As there were few criminal inquiries and the scale of earlier killings was far beyond the capacity of human rights groups and the media to document fully, it is difficult to speak with certainty about what happened nationwide.
Instead, a better way to understand the mechanics of the “war” is to recall specific cases. In the last week or so a newspaper in Bangkok has been doing just this, publishing accounts of the dead and their relatives, such as that of Somjit Kayandee, who was shot in front of her family after visiting the local police station, and that of six northern men killed together in a pickup truck on their way home from an anti-drug meeting.
Another story published is that of Saman Thongdee, in 2003 a 47-year-old living with his partner of over twenty years, Charuayporn, and their two children in the big northwestern town of Tak.
Seven years earlier, Saman had been accused of dealing in drugs while working as a schoolteacher. He was transferred to an office job and had been investigated but let off. He had kept working in the new post.
But at dusk on April 9 of that year, a black sedan pulled up outside Saman’s house. At least two of its occupants shot him dead with pistols before driving away.
When Charuayporn heard the news, she rushed back and found police and bystanders everywhere. A doctor arrived and went through the formalities of recording details of the deceased. Saman was shirtless. A police officer took off his pants and checked his underwear. Then his corpse was taken to the hospital.
After hospital staff finished their duties, Saman’s body was moved to a room to be cleaned and readied for his funeral.
It was then that police ordered the family outside on the pretext of needing to take fingerprints and photographs and incise the deceased. Shortly thereafter, they called everyone back and suddenly produced a little blue plastic pack of pills: the same sort of little blue plastic pack “found” by police officers on drug-killing victims all over the country.
The police insisted that the drugs were in Saman’s underpants, although an orderly had already removed these and thrown them into a rubbish bin without having uncovered anything. Nor had the doctor called to the scene of the crime noted the existence of any such pack either there or when re-examining the body at the hospital.
The police failed to come up with anything else to support their averment, but this didn’t stop them from coming to Saman’s house with letters issued following the orders of Prime Minister Pol. Lt. Col. Thaksin Shinawatra to seize property obtained through the drugs trade. They took most of what the family owned, including two cars, bank accounts, land, motorcycles and insurance deeds.
To top it off, Saman’s insurance company refused to honor his life policy, claiming that he had lied about how he earned his income, although his case was never tried in court.
In 2004, a team from the National Human Rights Commission concluded that there was no firm evidence to support the police claims. Indeed, it found that their version of events was inconsistent with those of all other persons involved.
In 2006, Saman’s case was transferred to the Department of Special Investigation together with a number of others, including that of a nine-year-old who was shot dead while sitting in a car; the police accused in that case have recently been acquitted.
The Justice Ministry also decided to return assets to Saman’s family, quietly acknowledging that the charges against him were baseless. However, to date there has been no known action taken against the officers who set the case up.
With the unrepentant talk of Thailand’s new government, it is unlikely there will be any further progress to the piecemeal efforts for justice in drug war cases. Whether or not there are fresh corpses in 2008, there are not likely to be fresh inquiries.
In every society criminal inquiry is affected by all sorts of pressures from outside groups and individuals, including those with political interests. However, Saman’s case reveals the extent to which in Thailand justice is captive to these forces. The relatives of these casualties of “war” are down one moment and up the next as policies seesaw from government to government.
Throughout it all, the police remain much the same, and Saman’s killers, like those of the war’s victims across Thailand, all but forgotten.
See also: Return to populist crimes against humanity, by Jon Ungphakhorn (Prachatai)