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Thailand, the politics of justice

The contrasting treatment of those accused of verbal insults of the monarch and those responsible for violent repression casts a sorry verdict on the process of justice in Thailand, says Tyrell Haberkorn in Bangkok.

Seven years ago, on 19 September 2006, Thailand's elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted from office by a coup. While no blood was shed on the day itself, the period since has been filled with political contention, constriction of political freedom, and at times, open violence. Events around the latest anniversary of the coup confirm that its legacy involves a double violation of justice: impunity for selected actors and almost unimaginable repression of others. This twofold movement is sharply revealed by two recent cases - one currently being prosecuted, and one which may never be prosecuted.

For three days in late August 2013, the criminal court on Bangkok's Ratchadaphisek Road heard witness testimony in the case of a man called Yutthapoom [whose last name is withheld] under Article 112 of Thailand's criminal code. Yutthapoom was charged after his older brother accused him of insulting the monarchy. Article 112 prescribes draconian punishments of three-to-fifteen years' imprisonment for individuals judged to have defamed, insulted, or threatened Thailand's king, queer, heir-apparent or regent.

Although this lèse majesté law has been on the books since 1957, its use has risen sharply in the years since the coup of September 2006. Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul is currently serving the largest sentence meted out under Article 112; she was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for a fifty-five minute speech which allegedly insulted the monarchy. What makes Yutthapoom’s case different from many others is that his alleged criminal acts took place in the private space of his home. The person who filed the complaint against him was his older brother, who reported that Yutthapoom uttered insulting words while watching television and wrote such words onto a CD.

The prosecutor had the option of throwing out the case on the basis that it was a family matter, or because the older brother did not have a witness to corroborate his accusations. Instead, the case moved forward and Yutthapoom spent 333 days behind bars without bail before witness hearings began. He remains in jail; the court will deliver its verdict on 13 September 2013.

Death in the temple

On 6 August 2013, southern Bangkok's criminal court - an hour or so across the city from the Ratchadaphisek Road court, depending on traffic - had delivered its ruling over a postmortem inquest in the case of six civilians killed on 19 May 2010. That was the final day of the state crackdown on the "Red Shirt" protesters who had been peacefully occupying much of central Bangkok. The civilians were killed inside a Buddhist temple, Wat Pathum Wanaram, which was close to the heart of the protests.
The southern Bangkok court ruled that these six civilians were killed by soldiers. Its documentation stated:

“The deaths were caused by being shot with .223 or 5.56 mm bullets and the direction of fire was from where the competent officials were stationed to perform their duties to maintain order on the BTS’s rail tracks in front of Wat Pathum Wanaram Ratcha Worawiharn and around Rama I Road. At the instructions of the Center for Resolution of Emergency Situation [CRES, the temporary state agency coordinating the crackdown under the authority of the emergency decree], the officials took control over the area of the Ratchaprasong Intersection. And as a result of that, the first deceased died of gunshot wounds on his lungs and heart causing hemorrhage, the second deceased died of gunshot wound that destroyed his lungs, the third deceased died of gunshot wounds that destroyed his lungs, heart and liver, the fourth deceased died of gunshot wounds that destroyed his lungs and liver, the fifth deceased died of gunshot wounds that destroyed her brain and the sixth deceased died of gunshot wounds that went through his oral cavity, whilst no particular perpetrators can be identified” [this unofficial translation is provided by Prachatai].

The killings of those inside the temple was the culmination of two months of a contentious standoff between the appointed government of prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Red Shirts, who were calling for new elections, clean standards and the end of corruption in politics. In total, ninety-four persons were killed and over 2,100 injured, many seriously, in the crackdown. It remains to be seen whether the inquest results in the Wat Pathum Wanaram case, or other similar ones, become the basis of criminal charges filed either against the army, the CRES, or the then prime minister. At present, the Thai parliament is discussing the details of a possible amnesty bill in relation to the violence of April-May 2010, and who and what will be covered by it. For now, however, none of those who either gave the orders for the crackdown or those who carried out are behind bars. A key factor in what happens next is the degree of political will to redress impunity and secure accountability over these events.

Justice's double standard 

These are only two examples of the strange incongruities that dominate the courts in post-coup, Thailand, where the king (Rama IX) has reigned for over six decades. They reflect a broader crisis: not just of accountability, but of who counts as human, and therefore worthy of protection. What happens in the courts is shot through with politics and largely devoid of humanity, meaning that the fate of justice hangs constantly in the balance.

It is not insignificant that both the prior Democrat Party government of Abhisit Vejjajiva and the current Pheu Thai government of Yingluck Shinawatra (Thaksin's sister) refuse to acknowledge the Article 112 prisoners as political prisoners - for reasons one can only guess, if one does not wish to run afoul of the law oneself. For now, it appears that a person reported by a sibling for allegedly making a questionable comment at home is more likely to spend time in jail than one who shoots, or orders the shooting, of unarmed civilians inside a temple.

About the author

Tyrell Haberkorn is a fellow in political and social change at the Australian National University. She is the author of Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law and Violence in Northern Thailand and is writing a history of impunity for state violence in post-absolutist Thailand.

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Tyrell Haberkorn is a research fellow in political and social change at the Australian National University and the author of Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law and Violence in Northern Thailand (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011)


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