Tag Archives: Bangkok

“Tak Bai? Ohh… you have heard about that incident? Did you?”

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Interview with Samak Sundaravej, Prime Minister of Thailand

101 East, Al Jazeera, 9 February 2008

Part 2

Start: 3:41

Your predecessor, Thaksin Shinawatra, was criticised for a pretty brutal campaign against Muslim fighters in southern Thailand. Many people who were innocent were caught up in that violence. Do you support his policies in southern Thailand?

Actually, he doesn’t mention any policy. The wrong that he committed, somebody says that… ahh… he says that it… ahh… it’s not quite so important mandate, and that’s all. That is what he mentioned.

But if we refer to Tak Bai, the Tak Bai incident, when many young Muslim men were beaten and rounded up and their bodies were stacked into trucks, many of them suffocated and died…

Where?

At Tak Bai.

Tak Bai? Ohh… You have heard about that incident? Did you? Continue reading

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Protest a more serious crime in Thailand than killing

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Hundreds of people blockaded the National Assembly in Bangkok on Dec. 12, where the unelected legislature, consisting largely of serving and former military officers and bureaucrats, was set to pass a flurry of highly regressive bills before stepping down next year. The protestors called on them to wait for an elected government so the proposed laws could be debated.

Afterwards, police officers said they would consider prosecuting people who climbed the building’s fences and went inside. They accused some of kicking and punching government officials and said that they could be charged with trespass, coercion, upsetting the peace, confinement and damaging public property, among other things.

This sounds familiar. The same bundle of offences is pulled out every time demonstrators and police collide in Thailand.

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The pretence of legality

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On July 17 the government of Thailand renewed a state of emergency over the southern border provinces for the ninth time since it was introduced two years ago. That the bloodshed in the south has only worsened in these years should not be a surprise to anybody. The weakening of already limited safeguards on the activities of police, soldiers and paramilitaries there was certain to encourage more violence.

The emergency decree not only permits but also obliges extraordinary detention of suspects, by providing that “Competent officials shall be empowered to arrest and detain suspects for a period not exceeding seven days…in a designated place which is not a police station, detention center, penal institution or prison.” The effect of this clause — together with other parts of the decree — is to all but guarantee the use of torture, forced disappearance and extrajudicial killing, for which state officers need not fear consequences as they are anyhow exempt from prosecution if they have acted in “good faith”. As the decree is so vague that anything could be construed as good faith, as victims are unwilling to complain, as police won’t investigate and as judges are unlikely to hear any cases, this amounts to a blanket impunity clause.

Meanwhile, the junta that took power in Bangkok last September has proposed a national security law that owes much of its contents to the decree. The draft bill permits the army commander to curtail undefined security threats without requiring the approval of the prime minister. It grants him powers to shut roads and stop vehicles, close public gatherings, keep someone under house arrest, order employers to report on employees, oblige the police and civilian officials to cooperate with the army wherever and however necessary, issue preventive arrest orders, summon anyone to appear before a designated official on any grounds, search persons or vehicles or premises at will, seize anything, and “conduct suppressive operations against a person or group of persons or organization which gives rise to actions threatening internal security.”

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Pakistan’s judiciary sets an example for Thailand

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Dramatic events in both Pakistan and Thailand during the past year have brought their respective judiciaries to the centre of national politics. Judges and lawyers in Pakistan have played a heroic role in challenging the authority of the army, while those in Thailand have done nothing to address the country’s military leadership and its objectives.

On May 29, Pakistan’s top judge lodged an unprecedented complaint about his attempted dismissal, before his own court. In the historic affidavit, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry described how on March 9 he was called to meet General Pervez Musharraf and in the presence of other army officers and officials, the general-cum-president asked him to resign over some unsubstantiated allegations. When he refused, he was detained for five hours while another judge was appointed in his stead. As he attempted to go back to court, his car was stopped and he was forced to return to his residence where he found police and other authorities cutting off his telephone, television, and Internet connections. His official vehicles were also trucked off.

In subsequent days Chief Justice Chaudhry found that his chambers had been entered and files removed, his office and house staff detained and questioned, his colleagues and peers prevented from meeting him, and his home apparently bugged. However, he refused to succumb and was able to mount a defense against his dismissal. However, he was not alone as most of the country’s senior judges and thousands of lawyers came to his support. They not only protested against the treatment meted to him but also demanded his reappointment (see photo above). His petition against the president has been accepted, and a full court case is now set to ensue, where many other details of the military’s attempts to dominate the judiciary could be revealed.

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A generals’ charter in judges’ clothing

Bring back the 1997 Constitution

Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers that, where powers of the government are properly separated, the judiciary poses the least threat to constitutional rights and has no physical force of its own. Though written in 1787, it still holds true that effective judgments rely on the police, corrections officers, and bureaucrats. Although liberty has nothing to fear from the judiciary alone, he warned that it has everything to fear from its union with other parts of government and a truly independent judiciary is a safeguard; a non-independent one is a grave threat.

Decades after Hamilton and his peers successfully advocated their draft constitution, a French aristocrat observed that the great strength of America’s political system lay in its courts. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at judges’ authority invoked at every turn yet granted them no overt political powers by the constitution. Constitutional rights were guarded through strict interpretation of law and adherence to judicial practice. In this way, he concluded, the courts formed the strongest barrier against tyranny.

Courts in Thailand by contrast, have never been an obstacle to tyrants. The notion of judicial review of government actions, which briefly captured public attention before the 2006 coup, has never caught up thereafter in Thailand. Nor has its senior judiciary ever ruled against a military takeover. On the contrary, it has at each instance affirmed that, might is right and has rewritten the law accordingly, even where, in the words of a professor in Bangkok, this has been “against morality and people’s common sense.”

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Justice on hold

man_on_phone1.jpgIn April, a court hearing on the outskirts of Bangkok was held up three times while the presiding judge answered his mobile phone. The judge, who was supposed to be listening to the deposition of a forensic expert, instead talked loudly into the telephone while the witness and advocates waited patiently. No one saw any advantage in antagonizing him by making an issue out of it. An experienced Thai lawyer told about the incident also didn’t seem much surprised. On the contrary, she estimated that in around three out of every ten criminal cases which she conducts judges take calls, albeit more surreptitiously.

Nothing in Thailand’s criminal procedure code expressly prohibits judges from talking on the telephone in court; nor apparently is there anything in their manual. But a well-respected serving judge asked to comment on his serial phone-using counterpart said that judges are presumed to understand, both as a matter of custom and courtesy, that such behavior is inappropriate. This attitude is shared internationally. The Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct make clear that in order to maintain decorum a judge shall be “patient, dignified and courteous.” Not that one needs to be a judge to know this; most of us learned these values in primary school.

Quite apart from the simple virtues of politeness, there are at least a few other self-evident reasons that a judge shouldn’t be putting his court on hold to take an outside line.

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Burma is not North Korea

Burma and North Korea together caused a flurry of excitement a few days ago when they renewed diplomatic relations after a quarter-century hiatus. Government officials, newspaper editorialists and human rights advocates around the world rushed to iterate prosaic remarks and bang drums about the two “outposts of tyranny.”

Why? Comparing Burma with North Korea just because the two are run by uncompromising military regimes has little merit. It does nothing to explain the real problems in either country. If anything, it is inimical to the prospects for meaningful change in both.

Seen with reference to human rights and the rule of law across Asia, Burma is not exceptional. On the contrary, it in many ways resembles its close neighbors, including Thailand. The differences that exist in Burma are mostly ones of degree, not kind.

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