(New York) - The Thai government should prosecute perpetrators of political violence on all sides to stop the increasingly deadly conflict in Thailand, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch called on government security forces, the anti-government "red shirts" of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), and pro-government groups, including the "yellow shirts" of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), to end violent attacks and urged the government to conduct an independent investigation into serious recent incidents.
"Thailand is spiraling further into political violence as protesters, counter-protesters, and security forces respond tit for tat against attacks and provocations," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "All sides need to rein in their supporters, order the attacks to stop, and negotiate a political solution before the situation escalates."
The latest round of violence has involved clashes between the security forces and pro-government groups and both armed and unarmed UDD protesters. Soldiers and police have increasingly shed their initial restraint and now more readily use force, including lethal force, when facing provocations by protesters. UDD supporters have also committed numerous violent acts against civilians. Major incidents in Bangkok have occurred at Ratchadamnoen Road on April 10, Silom Road on April 22, and Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road on April 28.
At the same time, the Thai government has refrained from ordering its security forces to forcibly disperse protesters at the UDD's rally site at Ratchaprasong intersection in downtown Bangkok since protestors gathered there on April 3. Government officials have expressed concern that such an operation, which has been urged by some pro-government groups, could result in loss of life and property damage much worse than what occurred during the failed operation to clear the UDD rally site at Phan Fa Bridge on April 10. The government Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES) has instead deployed thousands of soldiers and police to block major routes in the inner districts and outskirts of Bangkok, evidently aiming to prevent more UDD protesters from joining the encampment at Ratchaprasong intersection.
Official impunity, threat of arbitrary arrests and secret detention
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on April 7. Thai security forces have reportedly arrested many UDD protesters under the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in a State of Emergency ("Emergency Decree"). The Emergency Decree provides the authorities with broad powers to detain individuals without charge in informal places of detention without assurance of effective judicial oversight, and without immediate access to legal counsel and family members. The CRES has failed to provide information about the number of detainees and their current whereabouts, raising concerns of enforced disappearance.
Human Rights Watch urged the Thai government to treat these detainees humanely in accordance with international human rights standards, including by notifying families of their whereabouts and providing access by legal counsel.
"The Thai government's use of the Emergency Decree raises serious concerns," said Adams.
Article 17 of the Emergency Decree provides government officials immunity from civil, criminal, and disciplinary liability for acts under the decree performed in good faith, and that are non-discriminatory and not unreasonable in the circumstances. By protecting security personnel from prosecution for serious human rights violations and denying victims a judicial remedy, the Emergency Decree violates Thailand's obligations under international law, including those under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Thailand ratified in 1996.
Human Rights Watch expressed alarm at reports that article 12 of the Emergency Decree was being used to hold persons outside of regular places of detention, such as police station and jails. The risk of "disappearances," torture and other ill-treatment is significantly increased when detainees are held incommunicado in unofficial locations and under the control of the military, which lacks training and experience in civilian law enforcement. On April 22, the CRES ordered that three military camps in Prachinburi and Kanchanaburi provinces be used for detaining protesters.
Since April 15, the CRES has summoned hundreds of politicians, former government officials, businessmen, activists, academics, and community radio operators, to answer allegations of involvement in the ongoing protests. Under the Emergency Decree, the CRES is empowered to arrest all who fail to appear.
"It's no mystery that secret detention sites and unaccountable officials are a recipe for human rights abuses," said Adams. "Those arrested should be promptly brought before a judge and charged with a criminal offense or released."
Violent Street Battle on April 28
On April 28, UDD leader Kwanchai Praipana led more than 2,000 "red shirts" on motorcycles and trucks from Ratchaprasong intersection to attempt to break the CRES roadblock on Vibhavadi-Rangsit highway. The security forces used road barriers, razor wires, teargas, and rubber bullets to stop the protesters from going beyond the National Memorial site near Don Muang Airport. With their way blocked, the protesters initially hurled stones, fired slingshots, and launched homemade rockets at the soldiers and police. Video footage and photos taken by foreign journalists, as well as witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, confirm that some of the protesters then used guns and homemade grenades to attack the security forces.
At approximately 1:30 p.m., the security forces began using live ammunition and the clash escalated into a chaotic street battle that lasted more than three hours. According to the Erawan Emergency Medical Center, 18 protesters and 2 soldiers were wounded, and one soldier was killed by "friendly fire."
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said during a press conference on April 10 that the soldiers were only permitted to use live ammunition in two cases: to fire warning shots into the air, 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 non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. The Principles provide that if the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, then the authorities must use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life. The Basic Principles also call for an effective reporting and review process, especially in cases of death and serious injury.
Human Rights Watch called on the Thai government to conduct an independent, transparent, and impartial investigation into the April 28 incident. It should include an inquiry to determine responsibility for the decision by the security forces to fire live ammunition and the relevant circumstances.
"The Thai government needs to be doubly clear about its rules on using force and ensuring that soldiers and police on the streets strictly follow those rules," said Adams. "The Army and government should demonstrate that no one in the security forces or administration can escape accountability for serious abuses."
Violence by the UDD and pro-government groups
Both the UDD and pro-government groups have been implicated in serious acts of violence in Bangkok in recent weeks.
Contrary to the repeated claims of various UDD leaders that their movement is non-violent, photos, video, and eyewitness accounts demonstrate that many UDD security guards and protesters are armed with guns, explosives, petrol bombs, slingshots, metal clubs, knives, sharpened bamboo sticks, and other weapons.
UDD "red shirts" have repeatedly used those weapons to attack the security forces, pro-government assemblies and groups, and bystanders. For example, Methi Amornwuthikul, an actor and prominent UDD protester, was arrested on April 22 with a Tavor TAR-21 assault rifle in his car; he reportedly admitted shooting at soldiers on the night of April 10 on Ratchadamnoen Road. Over the past week, military and police personnel at checkpoints around the UDD encampment at Rachaprasong have arrested a number of persons with UDD identity badges who were carrying firearms and homemade weapons. The protesters have regularly fired homemade rockets at military helicopters hovering over Ratchaprasong intersection.
Chulalongkorn Hospital director Dr. Adisorn Patradul told Human Rights Watch that on April 24, a group of UDD security guards and protesters armed with sharpened bamboo sticks entered and searched the hospital compound and the patient wards. The UDD group claimed they were checking whether the hospital was permitting members of the security forces or pro-government groups to hide in the hospital. Security concerns forced the hospital to temporarily shut down most of its services and relocate a number of patients. On April 29, UDD leader Phayap Panket led more than 300 "red shirts," some of them openly carrying sharpened bamboo stakes and sledgehammers, to again search the hospital. The protesters abducted two construction workers from the hospital, accused them of being plainclothes officers, and took them to the UDD camp at the Ratchaprasong intersection for interrogation.
UDD leader Arisman Pongruangrong repeatedly threatened to seize ambulances of the Erawan Emergency Medical Center because he claimed soldiers could hide weapons in those vehicles.
The UDD have set up barricades, built with bamboo poles and tires, at all entrances to Ratchaprasong intersection and UDD security guards have searched pedestrians and vehicles going through these barricades. Human Rights Watch has received a number of complaints from people assaulted by these security guards. For example, on April 25, five UDD security guards surrounded Jakrit Mongkholratanasit as he was walking near Chidlom intersection. He alleged that the UDD security guards beat him, searched his bag, and forced him to go behind the UDD stage at Ratchaprasong intersection where they interrogated him. Det Hadtakwong stated that on the same day more than 20 UDD security guards and protesters attacked him as he was riding his motorcycle past the barricades near Ratchaprosong intersection.
UDD leader Nathawut Saikua continued to publicly urge the protesters at Ratchaprasong intersection to loot and destroy high-end shopping malls in that area. On April 8, for example, he told the protesters at the Ratchaprasong intersection that, "We, the UDD, are poor and rural people. We can easily get panicked, especially when the soldiers charge in. When we are panicked, we will smash glass windows of these luxurious shopping malls and run amok inside ... and when we are inside we can freely pick up brand-name bags or other expensive goods ... You should actually start thinking what do you want for yourself or your friends if you get panicked and go inside those shopping malls."
Violence has also been reported outside Bangkok as UDD protesters in many provinces have blocked road and train traffic to stop the Thai security forces from sending reinforcement to Bangkok. On April 25, over 300 UDD protesters in Ubon Ratchathani province in northeast Thailand stormed the compound of Ratchathani Asok, a Buddhist center connected to PAD leader Chamlong Srimuang. Police who arrived at the center took no action to prevent the protesters from destroying the center and detaining seven members of Ratchathani Asok for several hours.
Pro-government groups have increasingly come out to confront the UDD. The backbone of these groups is the PAD, which used protracted and violent protests to create conditions that sparked the military coup against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 and crippled and helped topple two Thaksin proxy governments in 2008. These groups have called on Prime Minister Abhisit and the army to end the UDD's occupation of Ratchaprasong intersection through strict enforcement of martial law and forcefully cracking down on the UDD.
On the evening of April 22, pro-government groups clashed with the UDD near Saladaeng intersection. Both sides hurled rocks and bottles, threw homemade grenades, and fired slingshots at each other. When riot police were deployed, a number of the pro-government protesters were brutally beaten up and arrested, while others ran for protection behind lines of soldiers on Silom Road. Around 8 p.m. that evening, unknown assailants fired M79 grenades at pro-government protesters gathered on Silom Road and at Saladaeng intersection. At least one person was killed and 85 were wounded in these attacks.
Since the UDD began their protest on March 12, there have been approximately 70 bomb and grenade attacks in Bangkok, carried out by unknown parties.
"The UDD's claim to be a peaceful political movement falls flat when their leaders continue to advocate and use violence," said Adams. "But the PAD and other pro-government groups must also reject the use of violence."
Censorship and Attacks on the Media
Human Rights Watch remains deeply concerned for the safety of journalists and the Thai government's widespread use of censorship.
The UDD continue to act aggressively towards Thai reporters, particularly those affiliated with the government's NBT TV and radio stations, whom it views as being critical of their protest or focused on exposing UDD abuses. On April 27 and 30, for example, hundreds of "red shirts" surrounded the NBT station in Khonkaen province and demanded that the station stop broadcasting anti-UDD programs.
Human Rights Watch said the Thai government has undermined media freedom and violated the right to free expression through it use of the Emergency Decree. Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban used emergency powers to shut down more than 400 websites, a satellite television station, online television channels, and community radio stations, most of which are considered closely aligned with the UDD. Human Rights Watch called on the government to either immediately lift censorship and other restraints on the rights to freedom of expression of online and broadcast media, or charge the media operators with incitement under the criminal code in accordance with international law.
"The government's widespread censorship of political views undermines Thai democracy," said Adams. "A free flow of information, accountability, and reaching common ground will be essential to end Thailand's political crisis."