The killing of Yapa Koseng in a vehicle parked at an army base in southern Thailand has attracted interest among news media and human rights groups, particularly since a doctor speaking at a postmortem inquest hearing at the end of June indicated that his fatal injuries could have been caused only by savage torture.
However, it was the testimony of another person that day which laid bare the mechanics of the homicide, or how, in the words of a United Nations expert on extrajudicial killings, police and soldiers in Thailand “get away with murder.”
That person was Major Wicha Phuthong, then acting commander of the unit holding Yapa, whom other detainees claim was present during the assault: a claim that the officer has of course denied.
According to Major Wicha, police picked up Yapa together with two of his sons and three other persons “probably” around 3 p.m. on March 19. They were to be held under martial law provisions for up to seven days without being brought to a court. Anticipating their transfer to a neighboring province for further inquiries, Wicha had them kept in the police van that carried them to his unit at Suantham Temple, in Narathiwat.
Yapa didn’t make it through seven days. The 56-year-old died sometime during the night of March 20 or 21, a broken rib stuck in his lungs. (Hundreds attended his funeral, above.)
But don’t ask Major Wicha about that. He doesn’t know what time Yapa died, he says, because he didn’t do rounds of the camp and was only told about it in the morning. He doesn’t know that Yapa had external injuries all over his body even though he was in the same room as the examiner and public prosecutor when the autopsy was done, and he doesn’t know what was written in the report afterwards. Nor, he says, was his superior interested to know.
From all this, what the major’s testimony does tell its readers is how the most basic procedures for recordkeeping had been stripped from the work of his camp.
Major Wicha could not tell the court with certainty at what day or time Yapa was taken into his custody, exactly how he had been kept, which of his subordinates were taking care of him, or even who was holding the keys to the van – not only because he may have been lying, but also because no records were kept of these things. His own orders and reports on the case were done orally, he maintains, and the duty roster, although in writing, is “mostly…thrown away afterwards.”
A discarded record is no record at all. Recordkeeping by definition means that something is kept. This is so that if questions later arise about who was on duty when and where, answers can quickly and easily be obtained, and denials of knowledge rebutted or probed.
Recordkeeping is by nature imperfect, but where basic details are accurately documented, they open doors for investigators through which to take their work. Where it is not done, or very badly done, these doors are closed, criminal inquiry is thwarted, and getting away with murder becomes possible. Where it is not done systematically and repeatedly, it becomes possible on a large scale.
That is how tens of thousands of people were abducted and killed in Sri Lanka during the late 1980s and early 90s, often having gone to army camps or police stations on official orders. There followed a generalized practice, a presidential commission of inquiry later found, of not investigating these cases; a characteristic also of the killings of alleged drug dealers in Thailand during 2003.
Similarly, in Burma following the nationwide protests of last September thousands of persons were rounded up and held without charge. Those now being brought into the courts have blank periods stretching from weeks to months on their records, from the time of actually being taken into custody to the time of having a case registered. In these gaps lie torture, ill treatment and other grave abuses.
In the south of Thailand, special ambiguous “laws” have encouraged the non-keeping of records and have systematized murder, torture and forced disappearance.
However, these laws are compounding a malaise, not causing it. Police everywhere in Thailand routinely alter, botch and pad their books; adding or omitting names, erasing key facts, making up others. Sometimes gaps and inaccuracies are acknowledged in court, yet judges rarely seem to take issue with the unsound documents upon which they are supposed to reach sound verdicts.
The effect of all of this is to make the proper working of the courts impossible, and for many, the criminal justice system little more than a cruel farce; for others like Yapa Koseng, just plain cruel. When a police charge sheet is crowded with the name of every member of a department as investigators, when undercover agents run around the countryside without keeping diaries of their activities, when army officers don’t know who is doing what under their command, getting away with murder is easy.
In Thailand, and indeed across Asia, the protecting of human rights comes down to the capacity of institutions to enforce simple routines: the writing down of a few details in a book, the keeping of a duty roster. The difference between lives saved and lost is not in grand pronouncements or promises of special committees and fact-finding teams; it is in the nitty-gritty of everyday institutional behavior. Ultimately, the mechanics of Yapa’s murder lay in nothing more than persistent and deliberate failure to establish and follow a few simple rules.
See also: Paying lip service to addressing torture (AHRC)