By Basil Fernando
In a Thai courthouse on 4th October 2019, Judge Khanakorn Pianchana shot himself in the chest as a protest against interference with the independence of judges in their decision-making process. Fortunately, he survived the suicide attempt – made in open court – and is reportedly out of intensive care.
Regarding the issue of judicial independence raised in the course of coverage of this incident, discussion has now circled back to a statement he had posted online on the topic.
Posting a 25 page memo online, he stated: “Return the verdict to judge. Return justice to the people.” As quoted in the Guardian, the statement read: “At this moment, other fellow judges in Courts of First Instance across the country are being treated the same way as I was. [If] I cannot keep my oath of office, I’d rather die than live without honour.”
The judge stated that there had been attempts to pressurise him to convict the defendants in the verdict (of acquittal) that he delivered before he shot himself. The statement also stated that some superior judges wanted to see his verdict before it was pronounced. He also stated that such kinds of pressure are exercised not only on him but on many others in the course of carrying out their decision-making duties as judges.
A court spokesman has told reporters that the judge’s action was due to personal stress. However, it has also been seen as a protest against the matters that he himself referred to, in terms of the serious defects of the justice system.
He was trying to draw attention of his fellow citizens as well as the rest of the world to the extremely defective justice system in Thailand.
That judicial system in Thailand is corrupt and it is controlled by various political authorities. This is well known. However, the extent to which judicial systems can malfunction is something that has not been given enough attention to, even though it is at the heart of the disparity between promised justice (in policies, promises to international bodies, and written laws) and actual injustices that occur daily in developing countries. It is a timely reminder not only for Thailand but also for many other countries in Asia and the world, where the judicial role has severely undermined.
A former retired judge in Sri Lanka posted his reaction in a Facebook comment as follows: “Not only in Thailand, but elsewhere too, it is necessary to give every system in the place (not only the judicial system) a regular health check up! Failed systems can cause irreparable damage to society, if not properly monitored and adjusted in time!”
Over the past three decades, the Asian Human Rights Commission has worked to expose the sham that goes in the name of law in several of the countries in Asia. Among these countries are the Philippines, Cambodia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Singapore and Sri Lanka.
The plain truth is that these so called justice systems cannot pass any credible test regarding the exercise of ethics, norms and standards that are required to be followed by such institutions. They are part of dysfunctional legal systems that, while sometimes passing muster on paper, operate in a way that is counterproductive to their stated goals of upholding justice.
In short, judicial institutions themselves have been brought into conditions that makes them threat to the basic rights to the people. These institutions are a cause insecurity in several countries. These defective institutions also contribute to violence that is spread throughout many of these countries.
Without substantive reforms in dysfunctional judicial systems, any attempts at reconciliation, protection of citizenry and development within a country become impossible. In the discourse on reconciliation in the international community, hardly any attention has been given to the threats posed by bad judicial institutions. The result is that while UN agencies and others make recommendations to governments, and governments put up an appearances of wanting to cooperate, the actual realisation of rights is frustrated due to the malfunctioning domestic justice systems in many developing countries. There is a deep disparity between what is promised – in terms of constitutions or conventions ratified – and what is delivered, or even deliverable, by domestic legal institutions.
Additionally, where there is direct coercion on the judiciary, governments proclaim that they are bound to follow the rulings given by courts.
Unfortunately, because most human rights expertise is from persons and institutions that come from systems where what is written in the law and what is practiced by the courts and other institutions match, this problem is often overlooked. For example, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) declared that matters relating to the judiciary were not within the mandate of the human rights system in the United Nations. This strongly held view defeats all attempts to improve human rights in Asian countries and less developed countries in general.
The unwillingness of people as well as global institutions to listen to this common complaint about the effects of bad judicial systems will lead many to make desperate attempts to express their frustrations by extraordinary protests.
The Thai judge’s attempted suicide was an act of despair. Will there be a response, locally in Thailand and also globally, to this widespread problem of dysfunctional judicial systems? The way that question is answered will have a decisive impact on the protection of people’s rights and the preservation of rational systems of governance.