Asia needs a new rule-of-law debate

(Der Rechtsstaat in Thailand)

The rule of law has been getting talked up in Thailand a lot since the former prime minister’s wife, Pojaman Shinawatra, lost a criminal case before a special bench of the Supreme Court, and her husband skipped both town and bail prior to a hearing against him too.

Amid the many editorials and headlines (Krungthep Turakit above: Thaksin, Pojaman flee), academic Michael Connors suggested that the verdict against Pojaman could bode well for a more robust rule of law. Newspaper columnist Chang Noi was effusive, declaring the verdict “a manifesto on behalf of the law.”

Thaksin even got in on the act himself, describing those pursuing his family through the courts as having “no concern for the legal system … or the universal rule of law” and claiming that he and his family are victims of “continuous injustice.”

While the former policeman’s complaints jar with his track record of getting things done any which way, the cases against him and his family do raise issues about how the rule of law needs to be understood and debated in Asia.

One of the main problems besetting talk about rule of law in the region is that it continues to be dominated by writers and thinkers living elsewhere in the world, where courts, police and administrative offices work more or less as expected.

These persons usually take separated powers, constitutionalism and representative government for granted. Some publish commentaries on high-profile cases that are in fact relevant to the society as a whole, because their law and bureaucracy are relatively coherent and systematic.

Others go into the finer points of whether or not it is possible for judges to consistently and impartially apply law, and whether the rule of law should be governed by morals or procedures.

But little if any of this is relevant to people in most parts of Asia.

Apart from a number of states and territories, across the continent there is a huge gulf between the rule of law rhetoric and reality. In Thailand, the police force is an organized crime gang. In Cambodia, judges are proxies for the ruling political party. In the Philippines, army-backed vigilantes kill with impunity.

That a judge may harbor political prejudice or apply the law unevenly are the smallest worries for an ordinary criminal defendant in Asia. More likely ones are: Will the police fabricate the evidence? Will the prosecutor bother to show up? Will the judge fall asleep? Will I be poisoned in prison? Will my case be completed within a decade?

These are not the sort of questions that scholars in countries leading debate about the rule of law typically ask, nor are they particularly relevant to the cases against the Shinawatra clan. But they are the sort that matter most for the rule of law in Asia.

A new language of the rule of law is needed to make sense of it in terms of Thailand and Indonesia rather than Germany or Canada, to gauge it by what goes in the streets, gambling dens and karaoke bars, rather than what goes for an ousted tycoon premier and his relatives. In short, Asia needs a new rule-of-law debate.

This debate will require asking questions about cases that will reveal many more deeply embedded and uncomfortable truths about the day-to-day workings of state agencies and agents, like, why have the police who allegedly tortured Urai Srineh at the Chonburi police station in 2005, which caused him to die from renal failure, never been properly investigated or prosecuted?

What about the ones who shot dead a suspect on the outskirts of Bangkok during 2005 and then sued a top forensic scientist and justice ministry official for saying that the man could not have committed suicide as they had claimed?

Have the three army officers found responsible in court for the killings of 29 young men at Krue Se in 2004 been prosecuted yet? If not, why not?

Has the death in army custody of Charnchai Promthongchai in Mae Hong Son at the end of 2006 ever resulted in anything being done against the responsible officers?

Why didn’t the detailed repeated complaints of Uthai Boonom and Amporn Kochabang that they were abducted, robbed and set up by Saraburi police in 2002 ever lead to a serious review of their case?

Why won’t the Department of Special Investigation come clean on what it knows about who really stabbed environmentalist monk Phra Supoj Suwajo to death in mid-2005?

And when will the courts challenge the security forces over the legality of the use of blacklists to hunt down people in the south, or the Interior Ministry over its use of them to hunt down alleged drug dealers just about everywhere else?

These are just a few examples of more important, more embedded, more difficult and more dangerous matters confronting Thailand than the cases against Thaksin and family.

This is not to say that the cases against Thaksin are unimportant; on the contrary, they are of national significance, but they are not and cannot be a gauge of the rule of law. Not only are they freighted with too much political weight, too much money and way too much of a sense of history in the making, they are in every respect too far removed from the rule of law that matters.

Source: Asia needs a new rule-of-law debate


7 responses to “Asia needs a new rule-of-law debate

  1. I have lived in Thailand on & off for the past 20-years and have seen the level of corruption and evil that exists in the Thai police force.

    Some years ago, a friend went to the local police station to report that his Thai girlfriend has absconded with expensive jewelry, gold, cash, etc. While walking home afterwards (several hundred meters for the station), my friend was stopped by a man on a motorcycle offering to kill the girlfriend for a specified amount of money. The only people aware of the incident were the police.

    I cannot walk into the local police station without being approached by a policeman offering his “services”. The police view any encounter with a foreigner (complaint, accident, etc) as an opportunity to extort money.

    Another friend, an attorney visiting from the US, was an involved in an with an unlicensed 14-year Thai boy who, in the process of passing in a no-pass business district, struck my friend’s vehicle from behind. The local police found my friend at fault. If my friend opted to go to court, no problem, he would be required to remain in Thailand for many months until his case was heard. Several days later, the Thai boy showed up at the police station with family members who just “happened” to witness the accident to bolster his side of the story. The Thai boy was not cited for improper passing, reckless driving, no helmet or driving without a license. Amazing Thailand….

    Yet another friend was driving home late one night completely sober (he does not drink) when a motorcycle with three very drunk Thai men pulled out onto the road with no headlights. My friend’s vehicle struck the motorcycle, killing one of the men and seriously injuring the other two. The local police station demanded over 100,000 Baht to issue an accurate accident report which would exonerate my friend, even though he was completely innocent.

    Even the Thai Tourist Police are not trustworthy and/or willing to do the job that they are intended for. A friend was detained by the local police for a traffic accident and was not given the opportunity to obtain a translator, or was there any effort on the part of the police to translate during his “interrogation”. My friend filed a written complaint with the local Tourist Police who simply faxed a copy of the complaint to the police station that the complaint was lodged against. My friend could not drive past the police station for many months afterwards without being pulled over and taken into the station to answer charges for a fictitious “accident” he had just caused, complete with a witness!

    I know that most of the resident foreigners here are afraid to contact the police in any event. Any contact with the police can result in the foreigner becoming victim of a con. The laws of Thailand evidently do not exist for the benefit of foreigners and enforced on a “ad hoc” basis that serves to benefit the Thai police or locals. It seems that there exists a feeling with Thai people that “the rules are for other people”, which apparently is true.

  2. Good attmept to convert attentiosn from the cupples. Why should you be so evaisive?

  3. It’s very strange why you din not mention that Thaksin is the guy who escalated the scale of extra-judicial killing by the police. Maybe you have some objection about the number, is that why you din not mention it? If it is not 2225 and just 1000 people killed, would it be no ploblem for you? Even in the Somchi’s disapperence, you rarely mentioned possible Thakisn’s imvolvement in it. At least, his hird-line policy in the South encouraged the police to do so such an act of hooliganism.

  4. Somsak, Thaksin did not create the institutions that killed thousands of people. They have been built up for the same sorts of purposes for over half a century. He was in part a product of the system and was very clever at using it. Instead of just demonising him we need serious debate on the systemic and institutional elements of the killings and other recent events in Thailand.

    As to numbers, one person extrajudicially killed is already too many:
    A casualty of war

    You may like to read this post and comments on Bkk Pundit:
    2275, where did this number come from?

  5. Awzar there must be lots of people in Thailand, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, et al deeply disturbed by superficial ‘rule of law’ in effect in their lands, and the rampant abuses on individual human rights by their own police, soldiers and judges.

    Citing cases of abuse and keeping a record thereof in blog sites should keep the awareness, establish reminders of the many innocents who had sufferred and continue to be oppressed by the fractured laws of their lands that dispenses injustice, instead of relief and redress. But it won’t be enough . . .

  6. I agree 100% with farang,stay away of the highwaymen
    but anyway most are very helpfull saving you the trip to the police station to pay the fine .
    if you say please you can pay on the spot.

  7. Falang,
    Human rights protection in due process remains a heaven call in Thailand. Laws are made for people not law enforcers.Racism and ethnocentrism are too obvious in Thailand.

    ‘Pride and Prejudice’,an English story, is not far from Thailand society to date.

    Your cited occurrences here are undeniable truth in Thai law enforcement conducts.

    All I can say, beware of police and people with name and face if you are in Thailand.

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