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Ethnic Lahu activist Chaiyaphum Pa-sae, 17, was shot dead by Thai soldiers during an anti-drug operation on March 17, 2017.  

An inquest in Thailand into the death of a teenage ethnic Lahu activist ended today without an answer to a critical question: What happened to the missing security camera footage the army claims justified the shooting?

Chaiyaphum Pa-sae, 17, was shot dead on March 17, 2017, by soldiers from the army’s 5th Cavalry Regiment Task Force and the Pha Muang Task Force after they arrested him for alleged drug possession in Chiang Dao district of Thailand’s northern Chiang Mai province.

The investigation into Chaiyaphum’s death has been hampered by shoddy police work. In April 2017, the army gave police a computer hard drive containing footage from security cameras at the checkpoint where soldiers arrested and shot Chaiyaphum. But Chaiyaphum’s family found during the inquest at Chiang Mai Provincial Court that the March 17 footage was missing. No one explained how the footage – which the army had claimed proved the shooting was justified – went missing. Police, prosecutors, and judges responsible for this case did not demand that the army hand over this critical evidence even after they knew it was missing.

Lt. Gen. Wichak Siribansop, the army commander for Thailand’s northern provinces, told the media on March 23, 2017, that he saw the footage and concluded that the soldiers were acting reasonably because Chaiyaphum escaped and was about to throw a hand grenade at them.

“That was a right decision … self-defense,” Wichak said. “He [the soldier] fired one shot at the arm … but the bullet hit the boy’s vital organ ... If that was me, I would have opened fire in full automatic mode.” 

The missing footage raises doubts about the military’s claims. Thailand’s judicial authorities should not accept at face value the army’s one-sided account of Chaiyaphum’s death. They need to undertake a thorough and impartial investigation of his killing and make their findings public. They also need to investigate and prosecute possible obstruction of justice by the army.

In the 15 years since Thailand’s abusive “war on drugs” was officially declared, there have been thousands of unexplained and unaccountable deaths. Uncovering what really happened to Chaiyaphum might help to end this brutal and lawless campaign. 

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