Failure to Hold Government Forces Accountable Reinforces Impunity
(Bangkok) - No government official has been charged with a crime related to the political violence that wracked Thailand in April and May 2010, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. The government should undertake an impartial and transparent investigation and hold those among government security forces and protesters accountable for criminal offenses, Human Rights Watch said.
"In plain view government forces shot protesters and armed militants shot soldiers, but no one has been held responsible," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Those who were killed and wounded deserve better than this. The government should ensure that all those who committed violence and abuses, on both sides, are investigated and prosecuted."
The 139-page report, "Descent into Chaos: Thailand's 2010 Red Shirt Protests and the Government Crackdown," provides the most detailed account yet of violence and human rights abuses by both sides during and after massive protests in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand in 2010. The report is based on 94 interviews with victims, witnesses, protesters, academics, journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders, parliament members, government officials, security personnel, police, and those who directly took part in various stages of the violence from both the government and the protester sides. It documents deadly attacks by government security forces on protesters in key incidents. It also details abuses by armed elements, known as "Black Shirts," who are associated with the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the "Red Shirts." The report also explains the background to the political crisis that led to the protests and continues to the present.
The high death toll and injuries resulted in part from excessive and unnecessary lethal force on the part of security forces, Human Rights Watch said. At Phan Fa Bridge, some soldiers with M16 and TAR21 assault rifles fired live ammunition at protesters; others fired rubber bullets from shotguns directly at protesters, causing serious injury. To disperse the main protest at Ratchaprasong, the army deployed snipers to shoot those who breached "no-go" zones between the UDD protesters and army barricades or who threw rocks and other objects toward soldiers. At times, soldiers also shot into crowds of protesters.
"Soldiers shot wildly at anyone that moved," one protester who was shot told Human Rights Watch. "I saw another two men shot by soldiers as they tried to come out from their hiding places and run for safety. I believed many people died because medics and ambulances were not allowed to enter Wat Pathum until almost midnight."
While Thai authorities have not released comprehensive forensic analyses of the wounds sustained by those killed between May 14 and May 19, incidents reviewed by Human Rights Watch indicated that several unarmed protesters, medical volunteers, and bystanders were killed with single shots to the head, suggesting the use of snipers and high-powered scopes. On the evening of May 13, Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol, a Red Shirt supporter who claimed to be acting on behalf of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was fatally shot in the head during an interview with journalists.
On May 19, the Thai government mobilized troops from regular and Special Forces units, with support from armored personnel carriers, to break down the UDD barricades around the Ratchaprasong camp. Some soldiers fired live ammunition at unarmed protesters, medic volunteers, and journalists behind the barricades. Human Rights Watch found that soldiers fatally shot at least four people, including a medic volunteer treating the wounded, in or near Bangkok's Pathum Wanaram temple, where thousands of protesters sought refuge after their leaders surrendered to the authorities.
Several protest leaders and many UDD rank-and-file members have been charged with serious criminal offenses and are awaiting prosecution, but government security forces implicated in abuses continue to enjoy impunity. The failure to hold powerful individuals across the political spectrum accountable for abuses has yet to be addressed in any meaningful way, sending the message to those with grievances that government forces are above the law, Human Rights Watch said.
"UDD leaders have been charged with crimes, but despite promises by the government to also hold security forces accountable, no one in the army or police has been charged," Adams said. "This has fed the understandable belief among many Thais that the scales of justice are imbalanced."
Armed elements supporting the UDD also staged deadly attacks on police officers and soldiers. On April 10, the army attempted to move in on the UDD camp at Phan Fa Bridge and were confronted by well-armed and organized groups of Black Shirts militants affiliated with the UDD, who fired M16 and AK-47 assault rifles at soldiers and used M79 grenade launchers and M67 hand grenades. Among the first to be killed was a Thai commander, Col. Romklao Thuwatham, apparently in a targeted grenade attack.
Between May 14 and May 19, protesters fought openly with security forces surrounding the Ratchaprasong camp, using flaming tires, petrol bombs, slingshot-fired projectiles, and powerful homemade explosives. On numerous occasions, the protesters were joined by better-armed and fast-moving Black Shirts militants.
Between April 23 and 29, groups of armed UDD security guards searched Chulalongkorn Hospital every night, claiming hospital officials had sheltered soldiers and pro-government groups. The hospital relocated patients and temporarily shut down most services. Some UDD leaders and protesters reacted aggressively toward the media, which they accused of criticizing the protests or siding with the government.
UDD leaders also contributed to the violence with inflammatory speeches to demonstrators, urging supporters to carry out riots, arson attacks, and looting. For months, UDD leaders had urged followers to turn Bangkok into "a sea of fire" if the army tried to disperse the protest camps. Apparently following such directives, pro-UDD elements targeted buildings, banks, stores, and small businesses linked to the government or anti-Thaksin associates, including the Thai Stock Exchange, Central World shopping complex, and the Maleenont Tower Complex housing Channel 3 Television, on May 19. Also on that day, in response to events in Bangkok, UDD supporters in Khon Kaen, Ubon Ratchathani, Udorn Thani, and Mukdahan provinces rioted and burned government buildings. The attacks caused billions of dollars in damage.
"Regardless of their stated grievances and the conduct of the government, UDD members responsible for crimes should also be brought to justice," Adams said. "The UDD leadership should understand that when they use violence they cannot claim to be a peaceful movement."
Since an Emergency Decree on Public Administration in a State of Emergency was imposed on April 7, 2010, the government has used emergency powers to detain hundreds of suspects without charge for up to 30 days in unofficial detention facilities, where there are inadequate safeguards against possible abuses in custody. The government has also summoned hundreds of politicians, former officials, businessmen, activists, academics, and radio operators for interrogation, frozen individual and corporate bank accounts, and detained some people in military-controlled facilities. UDD detainees reported to Human Rights Watch that they had experienced torture and forcible interrogations, arbitrary arrest and detention, and overcrowded detention facilities.
The report documents government censorship and use of criminal charges to undermine media freedom and freedom of expression. Using sweeping powers of the emergency decree, the government shut down more than 1,000 websites, a satellite television station, online television channels, publications, and more than 40 community radio stations, most of which were considered to be closely aligned with the protesters. Even after the state of emergency was lifted in December, the government has continued to use the Computer Crimes Act and the charge of lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) to enforce online censorship and persecute dissidents connected with the UDD.
"The government undermines its claims to be rights-respecting when it engages in such widespread censorship of political views," Adams said. "The rolling restrictions on free expression seriously obstruct prospects for the restoration of human rights and democracy in Thailand."
Excerpts of testimony from "Descent into Chaos"
"We found that the areas in front and on the side of the Parliament were packed with the protesters, but there was no sign of violence.... But the situation changed around 1 p.m. when Arisman[Pongruangrong] arrived at the scene. It took less than 10 minutes for Arisman to incite the protesters and order them to push through the front gate to "hunt down" [Deputy Prime Minister] Suthep [Thaugsuban].
- Observer from Nonviolence Network, a nongovernmental peace advocate group, recalling UDD raids on the Parliament on April 7, 2010.
"Then the military fired teargas at the Red Shirts..... The protesters started begging the soldiers not to attack the camp.... I heard many gunshots.... The soldiers and the Red Shirts were fighting again for about 30 minutes or so. The soldiers were firing rubber bullets at the protesters, and their M16s mostly up in the air. ... soldiers were also aiming their M16s at the crowd... and suddenly I was shot in the leg."
- Vinai Dithajon, a Thai photojournalist, who was shot at the scene of the clash on April 10, 2010.
"The Red Shirts were pushing.... The army had used teargas but the wind made it go back against them.... Then the soldiers started to shoot in the air, and then they got hit by a grenade. They fell back and had injured with them, so to give cover to their wounded they returned fire. The Black Shirts were ahead of them, attacking.... The commander [Col. Romklao] was in the front when he was killed.... they had at least 30 wounded soldiers.
- Olivier Sarbil, a French photojournalist who witnessed the deadly clashes on April 10, 2010.
"They were all ex-military, and some of them were still on active duty. Some of them were paratroopers, and at least one was from the Navy. They had AR15s, TAR-21s, M16s, AK-47s.... They told me that their job was to protect the Red Shirt protesters, but their real job was to terrorize the soldiers.... They operated mostly at night, but sometimes also during the day."
- A foreign journalist who described his experience with the Black Shirts.
"I first was filming with the army on Wireless Road.... Then I ran across to the Red Shirt side.... As I ran across the street, I was shot in my wrist. I kept running and ended up beside another person who was shot and he was waving a white towel. As I got down, I was shot again in the leg.... All the shots were coming from the army, as far as I know. A Red Shirt security guard ran across the street and grabbed me by the arm, he later told me I was shot again in the side as he was dragging me."
- Nelson Rand, a Canadian journalist, described how he was shot on May 14, 2010 after the army enforced "live fire" zones in parts of Bangkok.
"The whole operation was staggering in its incompetence. You had scared young conscripts blazing away at the tents in Lumphini Park without any fire control. There wasn't the command and control that you would expect during such an operation.... When I was with the troops in the park along the fence, they were opening fire at people in the park.... The park was used essentially as a free-fire zone, the soldiers moved and took shots along Wireless and Rama IV Road."
- A foreign military analyst, who accompanied the soldiers during the dispersal operations on May 19, 2010.
"Many of us came to hide inside Wat Pathum [temple]. Our leaders told us that temple was a safe zone.... Around 6 p.m. I heard gunshots coming from in front of the temple and I saw people running toward me...Before I could do anything, I was shot in my left leg and in my chest. The bullet went through my leg. Soldiers shot wildly at anyone that moved. I saw another two men shot by soldiers as they tried to come out from their hiding places and run for safety. I believed many people died because medics and ambulances were not allowed to enter Wat Pathum until almost midnight. I saw a young man suffer from gunshot wounds for about 45 minutes before he died. Some of us tried to crawl out from our hiding places to help the wounded and retrieve dead bodies, but we were shot at by soldiers."
- Narongsak Singmae, a UDD protester who was shot and wounded inside Pathum Wanaram temple on May 19, 2010.
"About 50 protesters and Black Shirt militants smashed their way inside through the glass windows, and some of them went into the underground car park. They looted the shops, looted the cars in the car park. Then they set fire with petrol bombs. Some of them tried to blow up cooking gas tanks.... when we realized that we were outnumbered and those looters and Black Shirt militants were armed, we decided to evacuate.... Some of my men at the underground car park tried to fight back. But they were attacked with grenades and rifles."
- Praiwan Roonnok, a security guard at the Central World, recalled when the shopping complex was looted and burned on May 19, 2010.