Anti-government "red shirt" protesters clash with soldiers at an army base near the parliament in Bangkok on April 10, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

(New York) - The Thai government should set up an independent commission to carry out a prompt, comprehensive, and impartial investigation into abuses by all sides during the recent protests and hold accountable all those found responsible, Human Rights Watch said today.

Anti-government protests organized by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), backed by the deposed prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, began on March 12, 2010. During the ensuing street battles, which involved UDD protesters known as "Red Shirts," heavily armed militants linked to the UDD, Thai security forces, and pro-government groups, at least 85 people were killed and 1,898 were injured, according to the Public Health Ministry.

"Now that the protests are over, the government should properly investigate and prosecute those who broke the law," said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Lasting reconciliation begins with accountability."

As a fundamental component of his "road map" for national reconciliation, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva publicly endorsed an impartial investigation into politically motivated violence and abuses committed by all sides. In the past, Thai political and military leaders have passed decrees and laws to pardon individuals after political violence instead of ensuring accountability.

Human Rights Watch urged the Thai government to demonstrate its commitment to justice by using such mechanisms as the National Human Rights Commission, a parliamentary inquiry, and an independent commission specifically appointed for the inquiry that includes credible and respected, yet disparate, voices representing a broad range of the political spectrum.

"The prime minister's announced ‘road map' for an investigation and accountability is both a positive step and unprecedented,"  Pearson said. "Now the government should put words into action."

Human Rights Watch emphasized that any investigation should address abuses by both sides, particularly incidents in which people were killed or wounded.  It should include acts of violence by UDD protesters and militants affiliated with the UDD against the security forces and civilians, including medical personnel and reporters, and the destruction of property. An investigation also needs to examine decisions by the security forces to fire live ammunition, and other possible misuses of force.

In addition, an investigation should examine alleged abuses related to the enforcement of the Internal Security Act and the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in a State of Emergency. Thai authorities have detained hundreds of UDD protesters before, during, and after the dispersal operations on May 19. To date, the government has failed to provide information about the total number of detainees and their current whereabouts.

Thai authorities have 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 said that the broad-brush clampdown on the media violated Thailand's obligations to respect media freedom and freedom of expression, and should be lifted immediately.

"Ending the cycle of violence and impunity in Thailand requires bringing to justice perpetrators of serious crimes, regardless of their status and political affiliation," Pearson said. "A one-sided inquiry will undermine efforts to reach a political solution."

Human Rights Watch also noted that Thailand, as a newly elected member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, should be open to engaging with the council's reporting systems. Thailand should immediately respond to the standing request from the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression and invite both to visit Thailand within the next three months.