(New York) – Five years on, the Thai government has not prosecuted those responsible for the 2010 political violence in Thailand, Human Rights Watch said today. Despite overwhelming evidence that soldiers used excessive and unnecessary lethal force against protesters and others, not a single soldier has been held accountable for deaths or injuries during the crackdown on street protests.
From March to May 2010, political confrontations between the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the “Red Shirts,” and the government of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, escalated into violence in Bangkok and several provinces. According to the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation, at least 98 people lost their lives and more than 2,000 were injured.
“The failure of successive Thai governments to prosecute anyone from the military for the 2010 political violence sends a stark message of impunity,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Fully five years on, commanders who gave the orders to soldiers and those who pulled the triggers all remain untouchable.”
Human Rights Watch’s May 2011 report, “Descent into Chaos: Thailand’s 2010 Red Shirt Protests and the Government Crackdown,” documented that excessive and unnecessary force by the military caused many deaths and injuries during the 2010 political confrontations. The high number of casualties – including unarmed demonstrators, volunteer medics and first responders, reporters, photographers, and bystanders – resulted in part from the enforcement of “live fire zones” around the UDD protest sites in Bangkok, where sharpshooters and snipers were deployed by the military. Similar findings were presented in September 2012 by the independent Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT), which recommended the authorities “address legal violations by all parties through the justice system, which must be fair and impartial.”
Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned by the ongoing politicization of efforts to pursue justice. The then-Abhisit government summarily charged UDD leaders and supporters with serious criminal offenses but ignored abuses by soldiers. The government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra took a similarly one-sided approach, focusing criminal investigations primarily on Abhisit, former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, and soldiers, while dismissing evidence of violence by armed “black shirt” militants who operated in tandem with the UDD.
The prospects for justice for victims of the 2010 violence appear even bleaker under the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta. The junta leader, Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has publicly said on repeated occasions that soldiers should not be condemned for the 2010 killings. Investigations by the police, the Department of Special Investigations, and the National Anti-Corruption Commission all came to conclusions that military officers should not be held responsible for unlawful deaths and injuries during the 2010 crackdown because they were acting under orders from the Abhisit government.
In September 2014, police arrested Pansak Srithep, whose 17-year-old son was killed by a military sniper during the 2010 military crackdown, for distributing leaflets demanding justice. Also arrested that day were Payao Akhart and her son Nattapat while they were waiting to stage a street protest nearby. Soldiers shot dead Payao’s daughter, Kamonkate “Nurse Kate” Akhart, while she was working as a volunteer medic inside Wat Patumwanaram temple in Bangkok on May 19, 2010.
“Despite clear photographic and other evidence that details the abuses committed by soldiers, the families of the victims are being pressured into silence,” Adams said.
The Department of Special Investigation issued a finding in September 2012 that indicated the military was culpable for 36 deaths. However, insufficient efforts have been made to identify the soldiers and commanding officers responsible for the shootings. Under pressure from the military, the department ultimately decided to charge only Abhisit and Suthep for the killings, using “command responsibility” as the basis because the two men had approved the use of live ammunition to contain and disperse the protests. In August 2014, the criminal court ruled that it had no jurisdiction to try Abhisit and Suthep because they held political office at the time.
International human rights treaties ratified by Thailand make clear that status as a government official does not justify immunity from legal responsibility for committing serious human rights violations. Moreover, by referring the case to the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the criminal court essentially transformed and diminished a criminal investigation examining serious crimes into an inquiry regarding abuse of official positions. The ruling is contrary to Thailand’s international legal obligations to ensure the right to an effective remedy for victims of serious human rights violations, including unlawful killings. A victim’s right to an effective remedy requires that the government take the necessary investigative, judicial, and corrective steps to redress the violation and address the victim’s rights to knowledge, justice, and reparations.
After seizing power in May 2014, the NCPO junta halted payment of financial reparations, initiated by the Yingluck government as part of political reconciliation measures, to all those harmed by the 2010 political violence. Before the disbursements were ended, the money was given to individuals who were disabled or injured by the violence, as well as the relatives of those who died in the unrest. Overall, a total of 524 individuals were to be compensated under the scheme, and were scheduled to receive 577 million baht (approximately US$17 million) of compensation from the state.
“If Thailand is serious about realizing reconciliation for the 2010 violence, it should demonstrate that no one – whether soldier or militant – is above the law,” Adams said. “No Thai government, including the ruling junta, should be able to escape its obligations to prosecute all those responsible for the 2010 political violence.”