One year after the crackdown, five reports examining the violent events may alter the history of impunity in Thailand and move the country towards reconciliation. [Photy by Nic Dunlop/Panos Pictures.]
“I want to talk about my husband. He was just a normal guy, not a special career, but he loved to see righteousness in society, and this caused him to lose his life.” With her voice shaking, Nittaya Phachua, age 33, stood tensely beside a photograph of her deceased husband. Her husband, Inplaeng Tedwong, was an unarmed taxi driver from Ubon Ratchatani province who was shot in the chest during the Bangkok crackdown of April/May 2010.
“I don’t know who shot him,” Nittaya, a mother of two, recently said at a forum at Khon Kaen University. She only knows the bullets came “from very high up.” Standing with her fist clenched behind her back, Nittaya’s voice trembled, “I want justice for my husband. For my children.”
It has been nearly a year since her husband died, and Nittaya is still waiting for justice.
For those affected by the April/May 2010 crackdown, Thai history offers little reassurance that justice will be attained. After similar bloody crackdowns in 1976 and 1992, the truth was overshadowed by government issued amnesty. No perpetrators have ever stood trial.
As the first anniversary of the 2010 crackdown approaches, how close is Thailand to uncovering the truth behind the 92 people killed and over 2,000 injured? Will victims like Nittaya ever be able to find reconciliation for the loss of their loved ones?
In the past year, five groups have been involved in investigating the April/May crackdown of 2010. One report and one court submission have already been released. Another group has issued an interim report focusing on the roots of the conflict. Two more organizations hope to have reports out this year.
One of those organizations, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) intends to release a report in late June or July. Mr. Sophon Chingchit, Director of the National Human Rights Council of Thailand’s Office of Human Rights Protection, said in an interview that the delay in the report is due to the careful considerations of the report review committee that is scrutinizing the evidence in the report. As the NHRC report is waiting for approval, other reports are moving forward.
“I’m talking about going to court to channel frustrations in the most non-violent way possible,” said Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer for the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) in an interview earlier this month. On January 31, Amsterdam submitted a request to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to conduct an investigation. The submission depicts the government and military as systematically targeting the Red Shirts. It claims that the state had a “policy to suppress any such protests through military force.”
In the aftermath, state officials charged Red Shirts with terrorism, lese majeste, or no specific crime at all, leading to arbitrary detentions. Amsterdam’s submission calls for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, along with key government and army officials, to be held “criminally liable under international law for crimes against humanity.”
In many instances, the recent findings of Human Rights Watch (HRW) corroborate the ICC submission, especially in terms of the government’s use of “excessive” and “lethal” force. However the report distinguishes itself by characterizing the crackdown as a violent conflict between two armed groups. The report directly identifies Black Shirts, an armed party during the conflict, saying, “on numerous occasions, the [Red Shirt] protesters were joined by better-armed and fast-moving Black Shirt militants.” At the launch of the report earlier this month, Asia director of HRW Brad Adams said, “in plain view government forces shot protesters and armed militants shot soldiers, but no one has been held responsible.”
Unlike the HRW report, the report from People’s Information Center (PIC), an organization consisting of academics, activists and students, focuses primarily on the human rights violations against Red Shirt victims. The PIC formed in July 2010, and expects to release their full report in December 2011 upon its completion.
In a press release issued last month, the PIC claimed that during violent incidents officers used “improper force in the situation.” It concluded that of 80 victims, “none of the evidence has proved they were armed, or they had any weapons ямБghting with the government.” As Kwanravee Wangudom of the PIC stated when explaining that no one party can explain exactly what happened, “I’m not saying we are speaking the truth but we can shed light onto what happened.”
While the first three reports focus on finding the truth behind the violence, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) focuses on reaching a common understanding. Commissioned by Prime Minister Abhisit after the crackdown as an autonomous body, the TRCT has until July 2012 to complete its mandate.
According to the first Interim Report from April 2011, the commission seeks to determine the “root causes and precedents of the conflict and violence in the country.” Ultimately, the aim is to create a “culture of compromise and tolerance of different opinions” in order to achieve “long-term national reconciliation.” Recommendations for reconciliation include reaffirming love for the monarchy, compensating affected families, granting bail to detainees, and retracting arbitrary charges of lese majeste and terrorism.
Critics question whether the TRCT is truly an autonomous and toothless body. Somchai Homla-or, chair of the fact-finding subcommittee of the TRCT, revealed that “we haven’t received cooperation from some factions of the military and the police. We don’t have much power, we give opinions and recommendations.” Beyond that, “we don’t have the power to subpoena,” Somchai concluded.
While each report presents a different set of facts and views, all of the groups writing reports have faced a common challenge in their investigations. The government has severely limited access to important information offering evidence to parties responsible for the violence.
The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) was assigned by the government to investigate the killings of last April/May. In December 2010 leaked documents from the DSI showed that from cases of 16 deaths, 13 of those deaths were “likely caused by soldiers” in the line of duty. The DSI later denied these findings.
Gaining accurate information is restricted due to the “official policy of the government of Thailand,” according to the ICC submission. This policy requires state officials “to conceal and/or eliminate all evidence of criminal conduct by the government or the Army leaders in connection with the civilian killings.”
This lack of government accountability mirrors the aftermath of past political demonstrations such as Black May in 1992, when military units shot and killed at least 40 protesters. General Suchinda Kraprayoon granted amnesty to both the perpetrators and the victims of the violence. The government set up a fact-finding panel for the events, which released a report eight years later. Before the report was released to the Thai public, the names of military officials, units, and actions were blacked out or abridged.
Dr. Sriprahpha Petcharamesree of the Centre for Human Rights Studies at Mahidol University has stated, “We are stuck in a system of impunity. We can’t break it without accountability.”
The recent announcement by Pheu Thai party to grant amnesty to all parties involved, contradicts the decision made by Red Shirts on May 10, 2010. Red Shirts rejected amnesty before it was offered putting themselves at risk of facing charges of terrorism and sedition, in the hopes that state officials be charged with the death of civilians. While the cycle of impunity may continue with the Pheu Thai party, a rejection of amnesty would be the first time in Thai history that a violent incident is not forgotten.
The different reports attempt to recall the incident and move the country forward through efforts to be accountable to the Thai public. Dr. Sriprahpha recently stated, “If we compile the reports together, we may see the whole picture better.” This is perhaps the first time in Thai history when that is possible.
While the future of amnesty in Thailand is unclear, “We cannot hold hands and forget like before. The problem will keep occurring, history will keep repeating itself” said Somchai Homla-or.
Even with the reports, Thailand continues to struggle with the meaning of reconciliation. The wounds inflicted by the crackdown remain. For Nittaya, “[Reconciliation is] about bringing the people who are responsible to justice.” However, as she moves forward raising her children alone, she expresses, “but somehow in my heart I still have a conflict with that because it doesn’t substitute for what I have lost.”