(New York) – Three years on, the Thai government has failed to fulfill its promise to impartially prosecute all those responsible for the 2010 political violence, Human Rights Watch said today. Amnesty legislation being proposed by leading members of the ruling Pheu Thai Party would shield perpetrators of serious abuses from accountability and should be rejected.
“Three years ago, the world saw soldiers shooting protesters and parts of Bangkok going up in flames,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “But instead of investigating and prosecuting those responsible, successive Thai governments and the army have politicized efforts for justice and are now backing an amnesty bill that would let everyone off the hook.”
From March to May 2010, political confrontations between the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the “Red Shirts,” and the government of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, escalated into violence in Bangkok and several provinces. According to the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI), at least 98 people lost their lives and more than 2,000 were injured.
A Human Rights Watch May 2011 report, “Descent into Chaos: Thailand’s 2010 Red Shirt Protests and the Government Crackdown,” concluded that excessive and unnecessary force by the Thai army caused many deaths and injuries during the 2010 political confrontations. The high number of casualties – including unarmed demonstrators, volunteer medics and first responders, reporters, photographers, and bystanders – resulted in part from the enforcement of “live fire zones” around the UDD protest sites in Bangkok. The army deployed sharpshooters and snipers.
On September 17, 2012, the independent Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand presented its final report, which blamed both sides for the 2010 violence but indicated that the security forces were responsible for the majority of deaths and injuries. The commission urged the Yingluck government to “address legal violations by all parties through the justice system, which must be fair and impartial.”
The Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES), established by Abhisit and chaired by then-Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, approved the use of live ammunition to contain and disperse the protests, but failed to take steps to ensure the army acted according to law enforcement standards. A document signed by Suthep on April 18, 2010, later seen by Human Rights Watch, broadly authorized the deployment of sharpshooters and snipers to “protect security forces and the public.” It is unknown what orders were given by political authorities to the army at the time.
“When a soldier looks through his rifle scope at a peaceful protester or medic and pulls the trigger, that is cold–blooded murder,” Adams said. “Soldiers who fired on people when no life was at risk, and the commanders who were directing them, should be brought to justice.”
There are serious concerns about the government’s commitment to ensure accountability, Human Rights Watch said. Shortly after taking office in 2011, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra publicly vowed to investigate and prosecute the security forces for the 2010 violence, but her government has failed to follow through. Not a single soldier or official has been held accountable for the deaths and injuries that took place during the political confrontations three years ago.
Criminal investigations have progressed very slowly. The DSI announced in September 2012 that the military was responsible for 36 deaths. So far, only nine cases have been submitted to the court for post-mortem inquests. Thus far, five victims have been found to have been shot dead by soldiers acting under orders from the CRES.
The government appears to have caved in to pressure from the army not to prosecute military personnel, Human Rights Watch said. Commander-in-chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has repeatedly said in public that soldiers should not be condemned for the 2010 killings. In August 2012, Prayuth ordered an army legal officer to file a criminal defamation complaint against Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer representing the UDD and exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, after Amsterdam gave a speech the previous March accusing the army of brutality against the “Red Shirts” and demanding accountability.
Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung and DSI Inspector General Tarit Pengdith have frequently stated that military officers would not be held responsible for the casualties during the crackdown because they were acting under orders from the Abhisit government. In December 2012, the DSI decided to charge only Abhisit and Suthep for the killings. The DSI charged both of them on the theory of command responsibility with premeditated murder and conspiring to commit murder.
DSI, police investigations, and the inquest rulings have provided inadequate information as to the identity of the soldiers and commanding officers responsible for the killing of protesters and others.
The families of those killed and wounded by soldiers during the 2010 violence told Human Rights Watch that they now have little hope of obtaining justice. In order to receive financial reparations from the government, the families had to sign a settlement document containing a provision that they agree to forfeit their rights to file a court case against the army for civil damages.
Elements of the UDD, including the armed “Black Shirt” militants, were responsible for deadly attacks on soldiers, police, and civilians, Human Rights Watch said. Some UDD leaders incited violence with inflammatory speeches to demonstrators, urging their supporters to carry out riots, arson attacks, and looting. Arson attacks in and outside Bangkok caused billions of dollars in damage.
However, the UDD leadership and their supporters, including those now holding positions in the government and the parliament, have contested these findings. Prime Minister Yingluck and her Pheu Thai Party now echo these views. On April 29, Yingluck gave a speech blaming the previous government and the military for all of the deaths during the 2010 confrontations.
“Violence by all sides took place, yet the UDD and its political supporters in the government still deny any share of responsibility,” Adams said. “Red Shirts” leaders and the supporters should recognize that all those responsible for violence and abuses need to be held accountable for what they did.”
The current status of investigations into alleged crimes by “Black Shirt” militants is unclear, Human Rights Watch said. Several of those accused by the Abhisit government of violence against soldiers, police officers, and anti-UDD groups were released on bail, apparently without any further legal proceedings. The DSI no longer refers to the elaborated chart, displayed in the media many times when Abhisit was in power, identifying suspected “Black Shirt” militants and linking them with the violent incidents in 2010. The families of soldiers killed and wounded in the clashes say that they fear that those responsible will not be prosecuted.
The Yingluck government is repeating the previous government’s failure to address the 2010 violence in an impartial manner, Human Rights Watch said. The Abhisit government charged hundreds of UDD leaders and supporters with serious criminal offenses. The Yingluck government, which has the UDD’s backing, has taken a similarly one-sided approach, focusing criminal investigations to prosecute Abhisit and Suthep for authorizing soldiers to use live ammunition and lethal force while denying deadly violence by UDD-linked “Black Shirt” militants. Both governments have shielded military personnel from criminal prosecution.
“Both sides in Thailand’s political divide share responsibility for the deadly confrontations in 2010, and now it is up to the government to prosecute all those responsible regardless of political affiliation or position,” Adams said. “No one should be above the law.”