Remembrances of Red Trauma (28) – No democracy without justice

By Hathairat Phaholtap

A whole decade has passed since the protestors of 2010 were surrounded for a brutal crackdown and various organizations set up to find out the truth of what happened. Even after the Truth for Reconciliation Commission delivered its final report in 2012, justice has yet to be served for those killed and injured in the crackdown.

Among the aforementioned organizations is the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). At the heart of their 92-page report on the events that transpired between March 12 and May 19, 2010 was the conclusion that the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protests were not within the bounds of the constitution. This conclusion was based on the Commission’s findings that the demonstration was not peaceful as weapons were present and human rights were violated by the protests. The NHRC also concluded that the government was derelict in their duty to protect citizens from harm and did not handle the protests in a way that was commensurate with its duty of care.  

The NHRC also urged the government to do more to facilitate peaceful protests, so as to allow one group to exercise their right to protest without infringing upon the rights of others to freely and peacefully conduct their lives. This should be done within the law and in accordance with international standards of due care. 

The report chided the Abhisit government’s use of extraordinary security measures in response to the protests which empowered the state itself to act with greater violence. According to the NHRC, such measures were not effective tools for dealing with protests and the government ought to find better mechanisms to ensure the peacefulness of protests in the future. 

The report also recommended that protests should be handled and facilitated by a specific government agency. It should have clear responsibility for these protests, have a clear plan of operations for dealing with them, and be staffed with the appropriate expertise to deal with large public gatherings. 

A key figure behind this report was Niran Pitakwatchara who served as a former National Human Rights Commissioner from 2009 to 2015. Niran is scathing in his critique of the internal conflict and political interference which dogged the NHRC. He outlines a litany of missteps in conducting the inquest, especially the tardiness in issuing their report which rendered it practically useless.

Niran Pitakwatchara is a physician, former senator for Ubon Ratchathani province and former National Human Rights Commissioner from 2009 to 2015.

Too little, too late 

The NHRC published a set of policy recommendations, based on their examination of the events, in June 2013, a full three years after the violent events. 

“Basically, the report came far too late. It was too late to say who has to change what in the way they do things. It had no practical use whatsoever,” Niran tells The Isaan Record. “It was just another wordy report that was utterly useless in the eyes of people who took exception to the violence.” 

Even before becoming a human rights commissioner in 2009, Niran had seen the storm clouds of potential for violence brewing ever since the coup of September 19, 2006, when a military faction led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin ousted then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power. 

Niran recounts how the two opposing political camps squared off against each other, and were mirrored in the streets by crowds of citizens. It was inevitable that the tinder box would catch fire, as it did in 2010. To Niran, this was inexcusable because dialogue and a political solution were still options that just weren’t pursued. 

“As soon as those masses were mobilized, any control over them was lost by the nominal leaders. Violence lurked beneath the surface of both sides. It was present, but unannounced,” Niran observes. “At the time, it was the agitation of a political party which ran counter to the interests of the establishment, who were not about to relinquish their grip on Thai society. This is what compelled the two opposing masses of people to come face to face in what could be termed a civil war.”

These are not simply the observations of an interested outsider. As a former senator in the upper house, he has some insight into the machinations of the political class. To Niran, the roots of these political conflicts lie with the conservative establishment, which is willing to fight tooth and nail to prevent a liberal democracy from gaining ascendancy.

“The struggle has been going on since 1932,” says Niran referring to the end of the absolute monarchy. “And we have to admit that former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra really made waves by taking the fight to the policy level. [The public response] to his policies is what made it painfully clear where the real power lies in a democracy: with the people. But Thaksin was far from perfect. He did much that was wrong, too, especially with all those human rights violations in the war on drugs,” Niran says in a sweeping analysis of the political conflict.

For Niran, the violence of 2010 not only showed that the conservative establishment had grown tremendously in power and reach, but that it also contributed directly to the coup of 2014.

“One of the greatest successes of the conservative establishment is the creation of a new power structure. Whether it be the rewritten constitution, their creation of a National Strategy Committee, or the packing of the upper house with 250 appointed senators. Any more of this and we’ll have regressed to even beyond the Sarit model,” Niran cautions.

The new power structure has posed a challenge to those fighting for democracy. “Thai society is facing a test,” he says. “How do we get through this monopolization of power, which is completely devoid of any forward development or reform that was promised to us since the 1997 constitution was ratified.”

Niran Pitakwatchara: “There is a culture of impunity in Thai society.”

A culture of impunity 

The NHRC’s report fell short in detailing how those responsible for the violence should be punished. But it did make a policy recommendation that all those responsible for the violence–the cabinet, the government agencies involved in the action, including any and all individual state officials, military servicemen, as well as protestors–should be put on trial by the judicial system. But Niran, who helped to put together the report and its recommendations, laments that to this day, not a single official who gave orders, or member of the military, has faced the justice system. 

“There is a culture of impunity in Thai society. The perpetrators just so happen to be the same people who were able to seize the power of the state. We tend to accept that whoever is able to seize power is sovereign over the rest of the nation. When the guns come out, the laws that are supposed to deliver justice, the principles of human rights that are accepted the world over, and our 1997 constitution which really upheld a lot of human rights, became just a dream that we woke up from. We regressed,” Niran reflects as one among the first crop of senators to be elected after the 1997 constitution. 

Hope that Thai society will bring those who gave the order to fire on protestors to legal justice is a forlorn one. Abhisit Vejjajiva, then prime minister, and Suthep Thaugsuban, then deputy prime minister, escaped a trial when the Supreme Court dropped their charges of attempted homicide in 2013. In 2017, the National Anti Corruption Commission (NACC)–which was given jurisdiction over cases from the 2010 protests–declined a petition to reopen the cases, citing insufficient evidence. Yet, Niran thinks that there’s still a chance.

He believes that the “chance” depends on the people, academics, the media, or anyone who values justice working harder than ever to check the power of the conservative establishment. 

A new benchmark for justice

The military’s involvement in the political violence of 2010 is obvious but Niran believes there is little merit in going after the rank and file of the army whom he regards as just having followed orders.

“Cracking down through using live ammunition like that is what you do when you want a completely decisive end-state, like in a war. But politics isn’t supposed to be war. All the combatants were Thai citizens. By giving those orders, the powers that be decided that it was all or nothing. And what they did amounts to a war crime in a civil war,” Niran argues.

Niran would like to see Thai society adopt a new benchmark for justice in order to facilitate a transition into democracy. 

“If we want to transition from dictatorship to democracy, we have to be open and transparent about what happened and bring the wrongdoers to justice. We do that to make an example of them, to show what not to do, and to deter a repeat of the offenses in the future. Then, there must be recompense. The victims must be systematically compensated and rehabilitated,” Niran recommends. 

Niran points out the importance of structural reform, too. The police, military, judiciary, and the laws–all of which contributed to the violence directly or indirectly–must go through a root-and-branch reform.

“Or else, we won’t be able to transition towards democracy.”