A television station in Thailand broadcast an interview early last month with Nuch Phosri (above), a mother who is raising two sons alone on a meager income. Nuch is having an especially hard time because one of her sons is paralyzed. But he wasn’t born that way. He was shot.
Nuch’s boy, Virjit Sriraksa, was riding home from his job as a guard at an air force facility in Phitsanulok on June 24 last year, when some teenagers came up to him on another motorcycle. They goaded the 19-year-old, perhaps because of his uniform.
Then there was an exploding sound. Virjit thought it was a firecracker. Stunned by the sound he kept riding until he fell from the bike. Blood was seeping from holes in his neck and shoulder where 17 shotgun pellets had penetrated.
So far it is a distressing story of a senseless gang attack. Then the police arrived. They took Virjit to a hospital, as would be expected. Then, Nuch says, despite a doctor’s request that the young man be admitted, the police insisted on taking him back to do a crime scene report.
With a neck full of pellets, Virjit was obliged to go and help record the details of what had happened to him. Later, after he was admitted to hospital, he became paralyzed from the neck down.
There are three key duties of a state and its officers concerning human rights, namely, to respect, protect and fulfill those rights. Under the first of these, a government undertakes to prevent its personnel from abusing or denying rights, and to act against those who do. Under the second, it must prevent others from doing the same. Under the third, it must take steps to secure those rights through appropriate and adequate public services.
Often, it is the duty to fulfill that is most difficult for a government, even where authorities are sincere. Every state is to some extent limited in its capacity to provide for the health and medical needs of its people. But in this case, minimum fulfillment required only that the police carefully and safely deliver Virjit to hospital.
Instead they forced him, against the wishes of a doctor, to accompany them to the crime scene immediately rather than be inconvenienced by taking him and doing all the paperwork again at a later time.
In countries where the police are subject to reasonably effective controls and external scrutiny, a case like this would generate huge protest and at the very least result in disciplinary – if not criminal – action against the officers involved.
That there has been no such outcry in this instance, even after the story was told on a national broadcaster, speaks to the extent to which police in Thailand continue to operate in a world of their own, free from the types of constraints and sanctions that apply to other people in their own society, or their counterparts in others.
In recent times there have again been calls from activists and victims of rights abuses in Thailand for the current government to put a bill before Parliament to do something about the police. The prime minister has made some sympathetic noises about reform, like he has for nearly every other issue brought to his notice.
But just how far removed all this talk is from reality is apparent from the demolishing of the National Human Rights Commission. The former commission was far from successful in achieving its mandate, but it had at least two or three members who were serious about their jobs, including the commissioners with responsibility for justice and policing issues.
These persons and the people who worked with them took personal risks to pursue cases, even where they did not have backing from other parts of the agency. In doing so they saved the former commission from being a complete waste of time and money.
Under the new commission, the two assigned with these tasks are a retired police general and a former judicial administrator. Of course, the whole purpose of putting a policeman on the commission was to prevent effective complaints against the police.
As if that wasn’t clear from the beginning, at a recent seminar he indicated that he would be concerned with structural problems rather than individual cases – which is another way of saying that he won’t be doing anything at all. According to people inside the body, he has already staffed the subcommittee that will support him in doing nothing with – wait for it – other police, and some prosecutors.
All the usual rhetoric about human rights, the rule of law and police reform continues to come from officials in Bangkok and diplomats in Geneva who are anxious to pull Thailand’s rights reputation from the rubbish bin. None of it makes a bit of difference to Virjit Sriraksa and countless others like him in Thailand who suffer from one indignity heaped on the other at the hands of the country’s police every day.
Oh, and for all the trouble caused to Virjit over the crime scene report, they didn’t catch the kids who did it either.