(New York) – The Thai government should act on the findings of an independent inquiry and prosecute all those responsible for rights abuses during the 2010 political violence, Human Rights Watch said today.
The report of the independent Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) is Thailand’s first ever independent inquiry of political violence that detailed violence and abuses committed by state security forces and opposition “Red Shirts.”
The TRCT report, released on September 17, 2012, concluded that excessive and unnecessary lethal force by the Thai army and armed elements among the protesters were responsible for at least 90 deaths and more than 2,000 injuries during political confrontations from March to May 2010. Human Rights Watch found in its May 2011 report “Descent into Chaos” that both government security officials and elements of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), including the “Black Shirts,” were responsible for the violence, though the government forces were responsible for the large majority of deaths and injuries. The TRCT urged the government to “address legal violations of all parties through [the] justice system, which must be fair and impartial.”
“The TRCT report should end once and for all the denials by all sides about who was responsible for the deaths and destruction of property during the 2010 political violence,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “It is clear that high-ranking figures on each side were to blame, and now it is up to the government to prosecute all those responsible, regardless of political affiliation or position.”
The police and the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) found strong evidence that soldiers were implicated in at least 36 of the 92 deaths during the 2010 political violence. On September 17, 2012, the Bangkok Criminal Court ruled in a post-mortem inquest that UDD supporter Phan Khamkong was shot and killed by soldiers during a military operation near Bangkok’s Ratchaprarop Airport Link station on the night of May 14, 2010.
While failing to provide the names of those responsible for abuses, the commission presented substantive findings backed by forensic evidence and testimonies of witnesses and victims showing that high numbers of casualties among unarmed demonstrators, volunteer medics, reporters, photographers, and bystanders occurred in the government’s designated “live fire zones” around the protest sites in Bangkok.
The commission said that the joint civilian-military Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) – established by then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and chaired by then Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban – authorized security forces to use war weapons and live ammunition in military operations to contain and disperse the protests without sufficient measures to monitor and control the use of lethal force.
The TRCT also found that heavily armed “Black Shirt” elements connected to the UDD were responsible for deadly attacks on soldiers, police, and civilians. The findings, however, did not provide details about the identity and command structure of these militants. In addition, the commission examined incidents in which “Red Shirt” guards and supporters committed violence. The report also found some UDD leaders incited violence with inflammatory speeches to demonstrators, including urging their supporters to riot, carry out arson attacks, and loot.
Under domestic and international pressure, Abhisit’s government established the TRCT in July 2010 to investigate the causes and consequences of the political violence and make recommendations for action. The current government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has repeatedly and publicly vowed support for the TRCT and promised to consider its findings.
However, both governments have politicized the justice process. The Abhisit government summarily charged hundreds of UDD protesters with serious criminal offenses, but at the same time failed to file charges against any government officials or military personnel.
The Yingluck government, which has the backing of the UDD, has taken a similarly one-sided approach, focusing criminal investigations primarily on cases in which soldiers were implicated while dismissing evidence of violence by the “Black Shirts.”
Immediately after the release of the TRCT report, the UDD leadership and their supporters, including those holding positions in the government and the parliament, emerged in large numbers to dismiss the TRCT findings and assert that there were no armed elements within the UDD. These assertions were made despite the fact that incidents of “Black Shirt” violence, and violence committed by some UDD protesters, were captured on videotape and in photos and widely reported at the time by witnesses.
On August 16, 2012, the army commander-in-chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha told the DSI to stop accusing soldiers of having killed UDD protesters and not to report publicly on the progress of its investigations. Rather than order General Prayuth to end his interference in the criminal investigations, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung announced on the same day that soldiers would be treated as witnesses in the investigations and that they would be fully protected from criminal prosecution. Under pressure, this position has since been adopted by the DSI.
“While politicians and military officers involved in the 2010 violence spend their time trying to ensure they are immune from prosecution, the victims and their families are denied justice,” said Adams.
For decades in Thailand, the concept of “reconciliation” has been promoted not to bring communities together, but to protect powerful politicians and military leaders from being held accountable for wrongdoing. In the name of “reconciliation” there were no independent investigations into the crackdowns on students and pro-democracy protesters in 1973 and 1976, which led to the deaths of well over 100 people. The complete findings of a government inquiry into the bloody 1992 repression of protesters calling for an end to military rule have never been released. In each of these cases, in the name of “reconciliation,” amnesty was given to those responsible for abuses.
Human Rights Watch warned that the push for a new National Reconciliation Bill by the ruling Pheu Thai Party and its coalition partners may become a convenient device for denying justice to victims of human rights abuses. Early drafts of that bill contain a proposal for a broad amnesty for leaders and supporters of all political movements, politicians, government officials, and members of the security forces involved in the 2010 violence.
The TRCT report warned that amnesty should not be rushed and should not be the ultimate objective of reconciliation. It concluded that the principle of justice must be taken into account to address the needs of victims and affected persons, accountability of perpetrators, and encouragement that perpetrators provide reparations and publicly take responsibility for their actions.
“Impunity has long been institutionalized in Thailand, with each side protecting their own while paying little regard for justice,” said Adams. ”The TRCT findings should serve as an important encouragement for the victims of violence and their families to oppose attempts by politicians and military leaders to whitewash deadly abuses.”