Thailand’s state of impunity

Tyrell Haberkorn
3 June 2008

Thailand's political order is again under pressure from the billionaire-businessman-turned-politician Thaksin Shinawatra, whose overthrow by a military coup on 19 September 2006 ended his prime ministership but not his political ambitions. But as public debate focuses on the former leader's next moves, and whether the constitution introduced by the military junta will survive in its present form now that civilian rule has returned, a truer insight into the condition of Thailand's public life is suggested by the extra-judicial violence that has disfigured the country in the 2000s.

Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party entered power after victory in the January 2001 elections on a strong populist platform. During Thaksin's first term as prime minister (January 2001-January 2005), Thai Rak Thai implemented a universal healthcare scheme and launched many small-enterprise endeavours; but it also blurred the lines between legal process and extra-judicial violence. In February 2005, Thai Rak Thai and Thaksin Shinawatra were re-elected to office for another four years.

Tyrell Haberkorn is visiting assistant professor of peace & conflict studies at Colgate University. She specialises in issues of human rights and political violence. Among her writings is "At the limits of imagination: Ajarn Angun Malik and the meanings of politics" (Thai Feminist Review, 2007)

In early 2006, following the sale of his family's share in his company, Shin Corporation, to the Temasek Corporation (the investment arm of the Singaporean government), Thaksin was accused of financial misconduct on a scale that was for many equivalent to national betrayal. His hold on power dissolved rapidly; following a series of citizen protests calling for his removal, the political era of Thaksin Shinawatra appeared to come to an end (see Jan McGurk, "Thaksin Shinawatra: the end of the affair", 4 April 2006). On the evening of 19 September 2006, tanks filled the streets of Bangkok and surrounded the ornate parliament building. With support from many (but not all) sectors of Thai society, a bloodless coup removed the elected prime minister.

Many supporters of the coup cited the restoration of "democracy" as the raison d'etre for military intervention in civilian politics (see Nick Cumming-Bruce, "Thailand: a coup for democracy?", 20 September 2006). While the call for a coup to strengthen "democracy" is a perplexing claim, far more disconcerting is the persistence of extra-judicial violence and human-rights violations under Thaksin, the coup government led by General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, and (most recently) the civilian government headed by (pro-Thaksin) prime minister Samak Sundaravej which took office in January 2008.

The return to civilian rule iafter the parliamentary elections of 23 December 2007 and the establishment of a new administration (a process initiated by the referendum on a junta-drafted new constitution in August 2007) was hailed as a return to democracy. True, Samak Sundaravej and his Phak Palang Prachachon (Peoples' Power Party / PPP) - the party created after the enforced dissolution of Thai Rak Thai in May 2007) - were chosen through a process in which citizens cast votes. There are few signs, however, that the extra-judicial violence that flourished under Thaksin will abate under Samak. In fact, early reports - as well as Samak Sundaravej's own history - indicate that the crisis may even deepen on his watch.

A law of bullets

Extra-judicial violence long predated the election of Thai Rak Thai and Thaksin, as evidenced by the massacres by state and para-state forces in October 1976 and May 1992, as well as intermittent low-level violence by the police and army against citizens. Unlike earlier periods, however, the violence during the Thaksin government occurred during an ostensibly democratic era when new forms of collusion between state and private interests emerged.

During the so-called "war on drugs", in the months of February-April 2003, over 2,800 alleged drug offenders were extra-judicially killed, most likely at the hands of the police. From January 2004, the three southern border provinces of Yala, Songkhla and Narathiwat were placed under martial law. Since the declaration of martial law, nearly 4,000 people have been killed, at the hands of both insurgent groups and state forces. In two notable incidents, the Krue Se Mosque massacre on 28 April 2004 and the Tak Bai massacre on 25 October 2004, large numbers of civilians died at the hands of state officials (see Jan McGurk, "Thailand's endemic insurgency", 28 November 2005).

In July 2005, martial law was augmented by an emergency decree (still in force today), granting the prime minister, army, and police unchecked powers in the three provinces placed under it. During Thaksin's first term, eighteen activists defending their communities against state and commercial interests were assassinated. Moreover, press freedom was curtailed; this was highlighted by the libel case Thaksin himself brought against journalist and human-rights defender Supinya Klangnarong. Most striking, the presence of violence during his first period in office did not hurt Thaksin's re-election bid.

Today, Samak and other officials in his People's Power Party (effectively a reconfiguration of Thai Rak Thai) seem equally unconcerned about extra-judicial violence. They have denied deaths, multiplied deaths, and reappropriated blame for extra-judicial deaths - often in conflict with earlier government reports which came near to establishing the facts of the matter.

These evasions and manipulations relate to some of the more notorious incidents in Thailand's recent history. On the morning of 6 October 1976, rightwing state and para-state forces massacred unarmed students at Thammasat University in Bangkok. The official government statement reported forty-three deaths; unofficial reports suggested that over 300 people died. In interviews with al-Jazeera and CNN shortly after taking office in February 2008, Samak alleged that only one person had died.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Thailand:
Sulak Sivaraksa,

"Thailand: a return to the ideal?" (21 May 2002)

Ratchada Chitrada, "Krengjai" (7 October 2004)

Jan McGurk, "Bambi vs Godzilla in Thailand" (27 April 2005)

Jan McGurk,
"Thailand's endemic insurgency" (28 November 2005)

Jan McGurk, "Thailand's rising tide" (27 February 2006)

Jan McGurk, "Thaksin Shinawatra: the end of the affair" (4 April 2006)

Jan McGurk, "Thailand's king and that democracy jazz" (12 June 2006)

Nick Cumming-Bruce, "Thailand: a coup for democracy?" (20 September 2006)

Nick Cumming-Bruce, "Thailand's high-stakes gamble" (9 October 2006)

Nick Cumming-Bruce, "Thailand's postponed democracy" (26 March 2007)

Robert Semeniuk, "A chronic emergency: on the Burma-Thailand border" (10 October 2007)

With regard to the Tak Bai massacre on 25 October 2004, Samak blamed the victims for their own deaths. Approximately 1,500 protestors were arrested in Tak Bai district on 25 October 2004; eighty-six people died while being transported to an army camp six hours away. Parliament and senate commissions, as well as Thai and international human-rights groups, identified army and other state officials as responsible for the deaths, which were caused by stacking the protestors four-deep on top of one another in the trucks used to transport them. Samak claimed that those who died were weakened and dehydrated as a result of fasting for Ramadan.

In contrast to his denials of deaths and state involvement in the 6 October 1976 and Tak Bai massacres, Samak lauded Thaksin's "war on drugs" and asserted that the death toll may be much higher than reports indicate. On 1 February 2003, Thaksin issued a call for such a "war" in response to methamphetamine and other drug-trafficking in Thailand. Rather than arrests and prosecutions of drug traffickers, the "war on drugs" led to over 2,800 extra-judicial killings between 1 February and 30 April 2003 (see Human Rights Watch/International Harm Reduction Association, Thailand's ‘war on drugs', March 2008).

While the Thaksin government denied involvement in the killings, and attributed them to people within the drug world itself, the interior minister in the PPP government, Chalerm Yubamrung, has indicated that the government will take an active stance against drug trafficking and restart the "war". In February 2008 he reasserted his ideas and claimed that even if it resulted in 3,000-4,000 corpses, the new government would reinstate the "war". Chalerm's threats of a resurgent "war on drugs" were not empty; on 12 March 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that four alleged drug-traffickers had recently been killed.

A defenceless space

The violence in the three southernmost provinces has also continued without interruption. In July 2006, Thaksin implemented an emergency decree covering the three southernmost provinces which gives wide powers to the executive, permits arbitrary and secret arrests and limits accountability. The emergency decree must be evaluated every three months.

Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, said in July 2006: "The emergency decree makes it possible for soldiers and police officers to get away with murder." Shortly after the coup, there was hope that the emergency decree would be repealed; in fact has been renewed regularly since it was enacted, most recently on 20 April 2008.

The Thai monitoring organisation, Deep South Watch, says that an average of fifty-three people were killed per month in the south before the September 2006 coup. After the coup, this number climbed to an average of seventy-two people per month. A recent report by the Working Group on Justice for Peace, a Thai NGO established in mid-2006 to monitor human-rights violations in southern Thailand, has also reported that in late 2006 and early 2007, there was an increase in disappearances, arbitrary arrest, and other forms of violence. Notably, reports of torture in undisclosed locations increased. The reports of torture are particularly disconcerting since Thailand became a state party to the United Nations convention against torture in August 2007 (see International Crisis Group, Southern Thailand: The Problem with Paramilitaries, October 2007).

The security of human-rights defenders has also remained precarious since the end of Thaksin's government. Somchai Neelaphaichit (Neelaphaijit), a human-rights lawyer investigating torture of suspected Muslim insurgents who worked for the end of martial law in southern Thailand, disappeared on 12 March 2004. He has not been seen since then and is presumed dead (see Human Rights Watch, "Thailand: End Official Cover-Up in Lawyer's ‘Disappearance'", 11 March 2008). Despite facing delays, a legal investigation and case implicating five police officers in his disappearance is ongoing. Angkhana Neelaphaichit, his wife, was placed under the government's witness-protection programme following the beginning of the legal investigation in 2004.

The Witness Protection Act stipulates that if a case involves the police, then they should not be involved in the protection of witnesses. Instead, civilian officers are to be assigned by the department of special investigations (DSI) under the ministry of justice. Amnesty International reported that from 1 March 2008 the DSI would assign only police officers to protect witnesses. Further, the acting head of DSI (appointed in February 2008), police-colonel Thawee Sodsong, was the superior officer of the five policemen named in connection to Somchai Neelaphaichit's disappearance. Thawee is alleged to have given the order to use only police officers to protect witnesses (see Article2, Protecting Witnesses or Perverting Justice in Thailand, June 2006).

In the four years since her husband's disappearance, Angkhana Neelaphaichit has been a brave and outspoken advocate for her husband, and a critic of human-rights abuses in Thailand on her own account. In March 2008, Angkhana spoke to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva about the continued failure of the Thai authorities to hold her husband's abductors accountable; and about the urgent problems of torture, extra-judicial killings, "disappearances", and arbitrary detention in southern Thailand. Her work has led to constant threats to her safety. Indeed, Angkhana has considered withdrawing from the witness-protection programme, fearing that participation in it could actually place her in greater danger.

A state of impunity

A prominent feature of the Thaksin era was extra-judicial violence used against people identified as enemies of the state. This problem, far from vanishing, has intensified in the twenty months of military-run government since 19 September 2006. The signs of the first five months of Samak's government indicate that it is unlikely to abate.

Thaksin returned to Thailand on 28 February 2008. There are rumblings that he would like to re-enter politics and perhaps reclaim - as if by right - the office of prime minister. Thai politics is once again in flux, dominated by disputes over Thaksin and between supporters and critics of the September 2006 coup.

But both those who called the coup necessary for democracy, and those who later hailed Samak's election as a return to democracy, have missed a vital point. The lack of "democracy", whatever it may mean for those who call for it, is not the principal problem in Thailand today. The problem in Thailand is that while the identity of those targeted by state actors may change, a rooted culture of impunity prevails. This means that citizens are increasingly exposed to direct violence by agents of the state, insurgent groups and fellow citizens. This, not Thaksin Shinawatra's financial misconduct or political plans, or even arguments over further constitutional revisions, is at the heart of the crisis facing Thailand.

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