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Thailand: Government and Protesters Should End Political Violence

Political Crisis Threatens Lives and Democracy

(New York) - Thai authorities and anti-government protesters should immediately cease using political violence to resolve their differences, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch called on the Thai government to initiate an independent and impartial investigation into politically motivated violence by both sides since the opposition People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) began its street protests in Bangkok on May 25, 2008. Members of the PAD, pro-government groups, and government officials responsible for unlawful acts, including police using excessive force, should be held legally accountable.

“Instead of attacking each other on the streets, the Thai government and PAD should use democratic and legal channels to end their disputes,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should only use the force necessary to protect public security, while PAD should end violence, vacate government buildings it has occupied, and disarm its supporters.”

The PAD, led by opponents of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has tried to force the resignation of successive Thai governments it claims are surrogates for Thaksin, who is living in the United Kingdom after fleeing corruption charges.

Three protesters have been killed and hundreds of others injured, including at least 40 police officers, and more violence in Bangkok is feared. In the most recent bout of serious violence, on October 7, police tried to disperse 2,000 anti-government protesters in front of Parliament using teargas and rubber bullets. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they heard loud explosions when police charged the protesters. The blasts nearly severed the leg of one PAD protester, while many others suffered deep wounds and burns.

PAD protesters responded by firing guns, shooting slingshots, throwing bricks and metal pipes, trying to run over police officers with pickup trucks and stabbing police with flagpoles. According to the Public Health Ministry, two PAD supporters died and 443 were injured, including four cases of amputation. At day’s end, about 20 police had been injured.

On October 13, the head of the Central Institute of Forensic Science, Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunand, announced that her investigation with the National Human Rights Commission concluded that Chinese-made tear gas canisters and grenades may have caused the deaths and severe injuries to PAD protesters on October 7. She found that this type of tear gas generates a powerful explosion before releasing the gas cloud. When fired from a tear gas gun, Chinese-made canisters travel 60 meters per second and deliver a powerful impact that can lead to death, loss of limbs, or serious burns.

News footage and accounts by witnesses indicate that police fired tear gas in a straight line and at close range directly at the protesters. Because of its excessive risk of causing serious harm, Human Rights Watch called for the withdrawal of all such tear gas from use by Thai police.

Available information from the recent protests indicates that, in at least some instances, Thai police appeared to have acted lawfully in using force in self-defense. In such cases, police and other security personnel should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The Basic Principles call upon law enforcement officials to apply nonviolent means before resorting to force. Whenever the use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials are to use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The legitimate objective of public security or self defense should be achieved with the least possible damage and injury, and with respect for the preservation of human life.

“While the Thai government has a duty to maintain law and order, police actions on October 7 appear to have been disproportionate and to have led to avoidable deaths and injuries,” said Adams. “The government should never be using deadly tear gas canisters against crowds of protesters.”

Since the standoff began in late May 2008, pro-government groups have attacked about a dozen rallies across Thailand organized by the PAD. Human Rights Watch found that many of these attacks were financed and coordinated by members of the governing People’s Power Party (PPP). For example, on July 24, more than 1,000 members of the pro-government Khon Rak Udorn Club, led by Kwanchai Praipana and Uthai Saenkaew (the younger brother of Theerachai Saenkaew, who was then the agriculture minister) used force to break up a peaceful rally of about 200 PAD supporters in Udorn Thani province. The police stood by while pro-government thugs beat and critically injured at least 13 PAD supporters and destroyed public property.

“By allowing pro-government thugs free rein to unleash brutality on protesters, the Thai authorities have contributed to political violence and tensions,” said Adams.

While public attention and media coverage in Thailand have focused almost entirely on violence committed by the authorities and pro-government groups, Human Rights Watch emphasized that the PAD and its supporters have also committed widespread violence.

After using roadblocks to block traffic in Bangkok, armed PAD protesters on August 26 besieged many government buildings in the city, including the NBT headquarters and the Government House, where the cabinet meets. The government obtained judicial injunctions and arrest warrants against PAD leaders, but could not end the siege of the Government House due to fear that it would result in serious violence.

After clashes between police and PAD protesters on August 29, the PAD effectively closed international airports in the southern provinces and imposed work stoppages on train service across the country. Violence escalated when the pro-government Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship (DAAD) engaged in street fighting with heavily armed members of the PAD on the morning of September 2, resulting in one death and more than 40 injuries.

Pro-government media have been verbally and physically harassed by the PAD during their coverage of the protests. The PAD has also shown open hostility toward government media outlets. On August 26, armed PAD protesters stormed the National Broadcasting of Thailand (NBT) headquarters and tried to stop the broadcast of NBT television and radio stations. NBT reporters and staff at Government House were threatened by PAD protesters and chased out of their mobile broadcast trucks.

Tensions increased in October when the police arrested PAD leaders Chaiwat Sinsuwongse and Chamlong Srimuang. In retaliation, thousands of PAD protesters on October 7 surrounded Parliament to block Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat from giving his policy statement to Parliament. Somchai insisted that the parliamentary meeting must proceed, and the police were ordered to disperse PAD protesters – leading to a new series of violent clashes between police and PAD on Bangkok’s streets. PAD protesters cut electricity and water supplies to Parliament. Surrounded by angry PAD protesters, hundreds of members of Parliament, ministers, senators, and parliamentary staff were stuck inside for more than five hours.

The PAD has also actively advocated the use of charges of lèse majesté (insulting the monarchy) against supporters of the government to stifle free expression. It accuses many pro-government websites of promoting anti-monarchy sentiments, a serious attack on freedom of expression given Thailand’s strict lèse majesté laws. More than 400 websites have closed in 2008, some under compulsion, others out of fear.

The PAD has advocated greater power for non-elected officials in the government. PAD leaders proposed that the number of elected members of Parliament be reduced to 50 percent of the total – with the remainder filled through the appointment of “retired officials and important people” and others. This follows the support of many PAD leaders for the September 2006 military coup that overthrew Thaksin’s elected government.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for investigations into human rights abuses by Thaksin, but condemned the coup and current calls for another coup by Sondhi Limthongkul and other PAD leaders. Since 2006, PAD leaders have repeatedly asserted that the military has the right to intervene in politics to check corruption and to protect the monarchy and sovereignty.

Human Rights Watch urged the army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, to continue to show restraint in refusing calls from both sides for the army to intervene in the crisis.

“The PAD’s support for violence, unelected government and military coups threatens democracy and human rights in Thailand,” said Adams. “Sadly, it has allowed an aggressive mob to hijack peaceful protests to provoke a heavy-handed government response and incite another coup.”

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