(New York) - The Thai government should keep its promise to set up an independent commission to carry out a prompt, effective, and impartial investigation into the politically motivated violence and abuses by all sides during the recent protests, Human Rights Watch said today. All parties should immediately cease political violence, the government should hold those responsible accountable, and Thai leaders should end censorship of a satellite television station, more than 10 radio and television stations, and 36 internet sites.
On April 10, the government's attempt to forcibly disperse anti-government protests organized by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and supported by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra escalated into a street battle in Bangkok. According to the Erawan Emergency Medical Center, 15 civilians and 5 soldiers were killed by gunshots, explosions from grenades and improvised explosive devices, and beatings during the clash. At least 569 civilians, 265 soldiers, and 8 police officers were injured from teargas inhalation, assaults, and gunshot and shrapnel wounds.
"Thailand saw the bloodiest political violence in two decades on April 10," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government and protest leaders need to make a public commitment to end attacks, establish effective control over their supporters, and ensure that those committing offenses are properly investigated and prosecuted."
The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva tried to restrict the activities of the UDD by enforcing the Internal Security Act (ISA) to prevent protesters from marching, occupying key locations, and blocking traffic in Bangkok. When the protest began on March 12, the red-shirted protesters defied the ISA by peacefully marching around Bangkok and blocking traffic at Phan Fa Bridge and Ratchaprasong intersection to convert both locations into continuous rally sites.
The UDD protest turned violent on April 7 when Arisman Pongruangrong, a leader of the UDD, led protesters from their rally site at Phan Fa Bridge to surround the Parliament building while cabinet ministers and members of Parliament (MPs) were meeting. As the riot police retreated, the protesters forced their way through the barred gate using a truck and entered the Parliament compound. Arisman searched for Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, who was accused of earlier ordering the riot police to throw teargas canisters at the protesters. After Karun Hosakul, a MP from the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai Party urged the crowd on, the protesters assaulted a military police officer from Suthep's protection team and seized his weapons (including a pistol and an M16 assault rifle). As the commotion was unfolding, cabinet ministers and MPs escaped from the Parliament compound via a ladder to climb over a fence into an adjacent compound. Some MPs and their bodyguards drew weapons as they were fleeing, but did not open fire. In response to the assault on the Parliament building, the government declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding provinces later that day.
Another clash broke out on April 9 when the UDD protesters, led by Jatuporn Prompan, Nathawut Saikua, Arisman Pongruangrong, and Karun Hosakul, went to the Thaicom satellite station in Pathumthani province to restore their People's Channel cable television to the air; its transmission had been disconnected by the government after the declaration of a state of emergency. The soldiers guarding the satellite station used shields and batons, water cannon, and teargas to stop the red-shirted protesters, but withdrew when they became outnumbered. As a result of the clash, 16 protesters and 5 soldiers were injured. The UDD protesters ended the siege of the satellite station after they reached an agreement with Lt. Gen. Krisda Pankongchuen, the Region 1 Provincial Police chief, soldiers, and the Thaicom executives that the People's Channel broadcast signal would be reconnected. The station remains partially blocked.
Human Rights Watch noted that under orders from Prime Minister Abhisit, soldiers and police initially showed great restraint in the face of provocations by protestors. Both the raid on the Parliament compound on April 7 and the confrontation at the Thaicom satellite station on April 9 seemed calculated to bring a violent response by the security forces.
The incident on April 9 prompted the government's Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES), a joint civilian-military decision-making and enforcement body in emergency situations, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Suthep, to be more forceful in its attempt to end the UDD's protest.
More than 1,000 soldiers were mobilized for crowd dispersal operations on April 10. Street battles flared up around 1 p.m. when UDD leader Kwanchai Praipana led protesters from Phan Fa Bridge to confront the soldiers stationed inside the 1st Army Region headquarters on Rajdamnoen Nok Road. When the protesters tried to storm the compound, they were stopped with water cannons. The protesters threw rocks and bricks at the soldiers. Soldiers used batons and shields, teargas, and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters. Video footage and still photos showed some soldiers firing M16 and TAR21 assault rifles in the air with live ammunition throughout that afternoon. Human Rights Watch has obtained photos showing that magazines of those assault rifles were loaded with the live ammunition (green-tipped 5.56-mm ball M855 ammunition). Teargas canisters were thrown from a military helicopter at the protesters, risking death and serious injuries among protestors from the falling canisters.
Violence escalates on April 10
The situation on April 10 became more violent after nightfall as both sides engaged in gunfights. The protesters regrouped and fought back with metal pipes and sharpened bamboo sticks. Some of them hurled petrol bombs at the soldiers, while others attacked the soldiers with improvised explosive devices. Some soldiers were filmed shooting with live ammunition directly at the protesters with M16 and TAR21 assault rifles.
On the night of April 10, protesters armed with M16 and AK47 assault rifles fired upon soldiers at Khok Wua Intersection on Rajdamnoen Road. Some of them fired M79 grenades and threw M67 hand grenades at the soldiers. Video footage showed that these gunmen operated with a high degree of skill and coordination. Some of their attacks appeared to be aimed specifically at killing and maiming commanding officers of the army units involved in crowd dispersal operations.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that some UDD protesters stopped ambulances on their way to hospitals. They dragged injured soldiers out of the ambulances and beat them.
In light of increasing casualties on both sides, the government announced around 9 p.m. that crowd dispersal operations would be ceased. In addition to the deaths and injuries, the UDD claims that many protesters have gone missing since the clash on April 10.
UDD leader Nathawut publicly urged protesters to loot and destroy high-end shopping malls in that area. While under pressure from the military to clear the area, Abhisit ordered the government not to attempt to disperse the UDD protesters at Ratchaprasong intersection for fear of heavy casualties and damages.
Human Rights Watch welcomed Abhisit's announcement that there will be a prompt, effective, and impartial investigation into the politically motivated violence and abuses by all sides.
"Prime Minister Abhisit's announcement that he will investigate the conduct of the security forces is unprecedented, but he needs to show the will and ability to follow through," said Adams. "At the same time, regardless of their stated grievances, those in the UDD responsible for crimes must be brought to justice. The UDD's leaders should understand that when they use violence, they cannot claim to be a peaceful movement."
Human Rights Watch stressed that any investigation needs to determine who in the security forces gave orders to fire live ammunition and under what circumstances. In protecting public safety, Thai authorities are obligated to use lawful means, including force proportionate to the level of threat or legitimate objective. Abhisit said during a press conference on April 10 that the soldiers were permitted to use live ammunition only in two cases: to shoot warning shots into the sky and to defend themselves when their lives are threatened. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that authorities shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, the authorities must use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The Basic Principles also call for an effective reporting and review process, especially in cases of death and serious injury.
In this connection, Human Rights Watch expressed concern over the broad-based immunity provision in the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in a State of Emergency (Emergency Decree), originally declared by the Thaksin government. Section 17 of the Emergency Decree states that anyone holding official power to carry out emergency powers is not subject to civil, criminal, or disciplinary liabilities if the act is performed in good faith, is non-discriminatory, and is not unreasonable in the circumstances. Extending as it does to all police actions, including those that may violate such basic rights as the right to life, section 17 of the Emergency Decree breaches Thailand's international obligations, including those under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to investigate all such violations regardless of circumstances, and hold perpetrators to account.
"The end of street battles is welcome, but political violence may resume anytime in Thailand," said Adams. "Now is the time for serious political leaders to agree to find a political solution before violence erupts again. One part of the solution is to hold offenders accountable, no matter what their political affiliation."
Attacks on media and censorship
Human Rights Watch also expressed grave concern for the safety of journalists and condemned censorship by the Thai government. Reuters television cameraman Hiro Muramoto, 43, was shot and killed on April 11 during a violent clash between demonstrators and Thai troops. It is not clear who shot him. Muramoto was a Japanese citizen and had worked for Reuters for more than 15 years.
Some UDD leaders and protesters have reacted aggressively towards Thai reporters who criticized their protest or exposed their acts of violence and abuses. On April 11, reporters were pressured to leave the protest site at Phan Fa Bridge. On the same day, mobile broadcast vans of Modern Nine TV and TPBS TV were seized by red-shirted protesters at the Thaicome satellite office in Pathumthani province. The UDD protesters have targeted the government's NBT TV for protests, including by attacking the NBT TV headquarters in Bangkok and its provincial offices with M79 grenades. UDD protesters attacked the headquarters of Channel 5 TV in Bangkok with M67 hand grenades.
Human Rights Watch said that the government greatly undermined media freedom and freedom of expression when Deputy Prime Minister Suthep used emergency powers to authorize the closure of 36 websites, together with a satellite television station and online television and community radio stations, accusing them of spreading misinformation and inciting uprising. Most of the blocked websites, satellite television station, and online television and radio stations sites belong to or are closely aligned with the UDD. Human Rights Watch called on the government to immediately lift the censorship and other restraints on the rights to freedom of expression of online and broadcast media under the Emergency Decree, or appropriately charge them with incitement under the criminal code consistent with international law.
"The government undermines its claims to be democratic when it engages in such widespread censorship of political views," said Adams. "Both journalists and media freedom in Thailand have been at risk from the political conflict."