Thailand’s Culture of Impunity


During Thailand’s “war on drugs” in 2003, a young man from the Lisu tribe was killed by police in the northern province of Chiang Mai. He had been shot while trying to escape arrest, police told his family.

But when his niece went to identify the body, she saw that he had been shot in the head at point-blank range. She is convinced that her uncle was executed in cold blood – one of the many victims of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s bloody crackdown on the trade in methamphetamines. Her uncle was involved with drugs, she says, but in no way deserved to die for his petty crimes.

To this day, no one has been held to account for her uncle’s death, and her anger has not dissipated. Now a human rights activist, she asked not to be named in this article, citing fears for her personal safety under the current regime.

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But she believes that Thailand’s culture of impunity – the ease with which the wealthy, powerful and uniformed can literally get away with murder – is a stain on the country that has blighted the lives of many innocent families.

Her father suffered from mental illness after the death of his only brother, and she remains wary of police and government officials even now. Such incidents still happen with alarming frequency, she says, especially in hill tribe communities in the north. The police should learn that “they are shooting humans, not animals”, she adds bitterly.

According to Human Rights Watch, there were some 2,800 extrajudicial killings in the first three months of the war on drugs; an official investigation in 2007 concluded that more than half of those killed had no connection with narcotics. No one has ever been held responsible for these deaths.

Security officials have long enjoyed impunity for violent crimes, often committed in the name of protecting the nation and the monarchy, and the war on drugs is merely an egregious example of this. In Thailand, might is right – the rich and powerful almost never pay for their crimes, and justice too often eludes the victims.

“One of the primary factors for ongoing impunity is the historical inability to hold state actors to account for committing acts of extrajudicial violence,” says Tyrell Haberkorn, a U.S. academic and author of a forthcoming book on impunity in Thailand.

“What this means is that the individual actions of military and police getting away with murder is pedagogical – citizens learn that they have few, if any, protections, and state actors learn that they do not have to worry about being held to account.

“Paradoxically, the law frequently facilitates extrajudicial violence – for example by permitting arbitrary detention over and over and over again, and by providing state security officials with protection for violence carried out in the name of ‘duty’.”

Residents of the restive Deep South, where Malay-Muslim separatists are waging an insurgency against the government, know all about this. A decade after 32 suspected rebels were shot in the Krue Sae mosque and a protest in the town of Tak Bai resulted in 85 deaths – most of the victims suffocated in overcrowded police vans – the victims’ families are still demanding answers. So are the family of Somchai Neelaphaijit, the Muslim human rights lawyer who “disappeared” – allegedly kidnapped and murdered by security forces – the same year, 2004.

Extrajudicial killings, enforced “disappearances,” and torture have all been documented by human rights groups in the South.

Amnesty International says it has also received “credible reports of torture and other ill-treatment during interrogation of a number of people detained since the military took power” in last year’s coup.

“One of the key concerns – and perhaps driving factors of torture in Thailand – is that courts continue to accept confessions and other statements extracted through torture,” Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s research director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told The Diplomat.

“Impunity is the norm in torture cases. At present, victims of human rights violations in Thailand are offered little hope that their perpetrators will ever be brought to justice.  Many remain fearful of reprisals if they make official complaints. If this culture of impunity does not end, torture will continue unchecked.”

Successive governments have done little to hold powerful people to account for their crimes, and so they keep occurring. Community leaders, environmental activists and political dissidents have all been targeted.

In April last year, 30-year-old Karen activist Por Cha Lee Rakchongcharoen, also known as Billy, disappeared following his involvement in a lawsuit against officials at Kaengkrachan National Park in Phetchaburi province. He was last seen in the custody of park officials.

The same month, poet and “red-shirt” activist Kamol Duangphasuk, a vocal opponent of the lèse-majesté law which prohibits criticism of the monarchy, was gunned down as he left a Bangkok restaurant on what one observer called “a grim day for Thai democracy.” It seems unlikely that anyone will be arrested for his murder soon.

This impunity for violent crimes stretches to the very top. In August last year, charges were dismissed against former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban for their role in the brutal 2010 crackdown on red shirts protesting in Bangkok. Human Rights Watch called the decision “an affront to basic justice and international law.”

Just last week, British journalist Andrew Drummond announced that he was leaving the country after 25 years following a direct threat to the safety of himself and his three children from “foreign criminals in Thailand working in liaison with the Thai police.”

“I have enjoyed my time in Thailand where I have made many good Thai and foreign friends but there comes a time having too much knowledge which I cannot keep to myself can be too dangerous,” he wrote on his website.

“My well-being has been threatened as have those of my children. This is not of course the first time, but the recent threat came from a group of people who have killed with impunity before, and have even had police set up people on false charges.”

In a country where generals can seize power from elected governments then grant themselves immunity from prosecution, it is perhaps not surprising that such crimes continue to go unpunished.

Mark Fenn is a British journalist based in Thailand.

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