Four Years On, Political Confrontations Escalate After Amnesty Attempt
(New York) – Successive Thai governments have failed over the past four years to impartially prosecute those responsible for the political violence in 2010. The Thai government and army should be pressured by the United States and other influential governments to end impunity on all sides for serious abuses.
Legislation for a blanket amnesty proposed by the ruling Pheu Thai Party triggered a new round of political confrontations that have resulted in 28 deaths and 826 injuries since November 2013.
“Four years on, efforts to achieve justice have been politicized by all sides and abuses are flourishing as a consequence,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “No one should forget that the latest round of political confrontations was triggered by a proposed blanket amnesty to shield perpetrators of serious abuses from accountability.”
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 2011 Human Rights Watch report, “Descent into Chaos: Thailand’s 2010 Red Shirt Protests and the Government Crackdown,” concluded that excessive and unnecessary force by the army caused many deaths and injuries during the 2010 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 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, sharpshooters, and snipers to contain and disperse the protests. It failed to take steps to ensure the army acted in accordance with international standards set out in the United Nations Basic Principles on Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
While impartial justice was promised, the Abhisit government focused its efforts on summarily and excessively charging hundreds of UDD protesters with serious criminal offenses. At the same time it failed to file charges against any government officials or soldiers.
Shortly after taking office in 2011, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra publicly vowed to investigate and prosecute the security forces for the 2010 violence. However, her government instead gave in to pressure from the army not to prosecute military personnel. Army commander-in-chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha repeatedly said in public that soldiers should not be condemned for the 2010 killings. Then-deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung and DSI Inspector General Tarit Pengdith soon followed suit, stating 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 bring cases only against Abhisit and Suthep for the killings, charging them with premeditated murder and conspiring to commit murder, based on the theory of command responsibility.
At the same time, the Yingluck government made little progress into investigating the alleged crimes by the UDD-linked “Black Shirt” militants, and the status of official investigations remains uncertain. Despite clear photographic and other evidence, the UDD leadership and its supporters, including those holding positions in the government and Pheu Thai Party, continue to assert that the UDD had no armed elements at the time of the 2010 events.
On November 1, 2013, the Pheu Thai Party and its allies in the government pushed a broad amnesty bill through a first reading in parliament. The bill promised a full amnesty for protesters from all sides charged with or convicted of actions against the state from 2004 to 2011, for the authorities who ordered crackdowns on protesters, for soldiers who carried out the crackdowns, and for individuals convicted of corruption after the 2006 coup. Even though the Senate rejected this bill 10 days later, the size and intensity of anti-amnesty protests in Bangkok and other provinces escalated. More than 100,000 people took to the streets to join the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC)—led by Suthep and other opposition politicians linked with Democrat Party—which demanded the overthrow the Yingluck government and elimination of the political network of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed in a coup in 2006. Since then, violence has repeatedly erupted in Bangkok and other provinces as anti-government protesters clashed with pro-government groups and the police. Anti-government marches and protest sites have also come under attack allegedly by pro-government militias.
The PDRC and other anti-government groups blocked voting in national elections held in January and February. PDRC’s claims to be a peaceful and unarmed movement were contradicted by those in their ranks who continue use violence, including with military weapons, Human Rights Watch said. Heavily armed gunmen operating with a high degree of skill and coordination have been seen fighting alongside PDRC protesters in street battles against members of the pro-government UDD and the police.
Human Rights Watch urged the Thai authorities to act more quickly and impartially to stop violence by all sides.
The government should fully investigate recent violence against anti-government protesters and prosecute those responsible. Since November 2013, there have been more than 30 attacks with military-grade weapons against anti-government groups, members of the opposition Democrat Party, protest sites, and protesters’ motorcades. The police have not reported progress in the investigations of any of these cases.
A transparent and impartial investigation into the police’s alleged unlawful use of force in the latest confrontations is long overdue, Human Rights Watch said. Repeating their failure to provide an official explanation regarding the events of 2010, the police have conducted no inquiry to investigate the facts and determine responsibility for the police’s decision to fire live ammunition at anti-government protesters during a clash outside the Thai-Japanese Stadium on December 26, 2013 and a botched dispersal operation on Ratchadamnoen Road on February 2014. Under international law, government use of force to protect public safety can be justified only so long as it is provided for by law, and is proportionate to the level of threat or legitimate objective to be achieved, Human Rights Watch said.
“No one should be allowed to escape accountability for violent crimes, no matter what their political position, affiliation, or ideology,” Adams said. “An important lesson from 2010 is that failure to end impunity will fuel new rounds of lawlessness and violence in Thailand.”