THAILAND: Without criminal justice history too is lost

On February 9, the new prime minister of Thailand made a number of startling statements before international television audiences that expose the huge impediments to protecting human rights in his country.

In an interview broadcast on CNN, Samak Sundaravej claimed that only “one unlucky guy” was beaten to death in a brutal rightwing militia attack at Thammasat University in Bangkok on 6 October 1976 in which 46 were in fact confirmed dead; hundreds more went unaccounted for. Samak has been implicated in inciting the violence of that day.

In a less-publicised interview with Aljazeera, the prime minister repeated this claim and also denied that there had been anything wrong in the handling of a protest outside the Tak Bai police station in Narathiwat on 25 October 2004 in which over 85 persons died; 78 of them in army custody. He claimed that they had “just fall(en) on each other” due to weakness caused by fasting during Ramadan, when it is known from video footage and the findings of forensic scientists that most died as a result of asphyxiation from being packed on top of each other in trucks. (The interview can be viewed here:¬†

There can be no excuses for these statements of the prime minister. They are much worse than lies. They go far beyond simple dishonesty. They are gross insults not only to the victims, not only to people throughout Thailand, but to all of humanity.

How is it possible for this prime minister to have made such comments without any apparent sense of shame or regard for accuracy? While Samak has a reputation for right-wing rhetoric and perversion of facts, there is an enormous difference between making offensive and patently false comments when a private citizen as opposed to when head of government. If he were an actor in a theatre of the absurd, we should be entitled to congratulate him on a good performance. However, he is a prime minister, and he does not appear either to care or comprehend that in making these comments he has spoken not on his own behalf but on behalf of his country and its citizens.

But there is much more to these comments than a brazen personality. Behind them lie the heavy institutional obstacles to human rights in Thailand, to which the Asian Human Rights Commission has alluded on many previous occasions.

The struggle against power, Milan Kundera has famously written, is the struggle of memory against forgetting. But this struggle cannot succeed by memory alone. It depends ultimately upon the struggle of law against criminality, and for institutions through which memory can be stored and used.

Without the maintenance of law and recording of crime, crime itself is no longer understood as crime. When the worst offences are trivialised, it not only guarantees impunity but encourages further criminality in all parts of society. If people can be killed without any consequences for the perpetrators, or even acknowledgment of the offence, the path is clear for other similar acts to follow, large and small. Society is not shaken by stories of wrongdoing because the notion of crime itself has been diminished. Ordinary murders, thefts and rapes too can be made to disappear, or look like something that they are not. The culprits may just as soon be jilted lovers, local businesspeople or small time drug dealers as powerful politicians, army officers and their cronies; every type of criminal benefits when the crimes of the state are trivialised or made to disappear, because every type of law disappears along with the crimes themselves.

Obviously, this does not mean that laws literally disappear, or along with them, judges and lawyers, but rather that the fair operation of law becomes less and less visible. There may be many crimes in the penal code, and many other laws to affirm people’s rights. There may be big buildings called courts and people in them with grand titles and clothes attesting to their authority. However, when blatant crimes have been committed and are then denied there is a dramatic failure in criminal procedure. The crimes exist and are known, yet there is no acknowledgement or investigation. There is no attempt to make an authentic record of criminality, let alone prosecute it.

When the state denies responsibility to recognise and address crimes, as it has done in Thailand repeatedly in recent years, it reduces criminal prosecution to a legal ritual that for the most part is performed only against the poorest and least powerful. Once law is reduced to this, rationality is lost, and with it, history–not as a result of simple forgetfulness but for want of agreed references upon which it can be said that wrongs have been committed about which something must be done.

In this respect the current government of Thailand is not, as many have posited, a break from the military regime that preceded it but rather, its extension. It is further setting back the nascent movement for genuine constitutional government and the rule of law that was begun with the abrogated 1997 Constitution, and so also notions of law and justice. The current prime minister is not the antithesis of the military dictator that preceded him but his continuation.

While the Asian Human Rights Commission joins in the widespread condemnation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej’s recent comments on the events of Tak Bai and Thammasat, it hopes that they will be an opportunity to recall and reinvigorate debate over these events and their respective places in the history of Thailand, especially the deaths in Narathiwat, which remain under investigation and for which three army officers have been identified as responsible but who have not been prosecuted.

Beyond this, it hopes that his remarks will give rise to deeper discussion among persons in Thailand on why after many years of effort they have been unable to build up a widespread debate on criminal justice reform with which to break down the dominant rhetoric of the perpetrators of abuses and their supporters, and to build a culture of human rights.

Thailand’s lack of an authentic narrative on its past is deeply connected with the long-term denial of the rule of law, the displacement of its constitutionalism and the growth of violence there. Persons concerned by the current prime minister’s comments must come to terms not only with his denial of history but also with the failure to build institutions for justice and defence of human rights. Otherwise, their lives will in coming years be made increasingly miserable, their society increasingly damaged by conflict.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-038-2008
Countries : Thailand,