THAILAND: When the purpose of an inquiry is to achieve nothing

Nearly a week has passed since the Thai Ministry of Defence announced the setting up of a panel to investigate three officers implicated in the killing of at least 85 persons by security forces in Narathiwat last October 2004. The men stand accused of having “mishandled” a protest outside the Tak Bai police station, leading to the deaths, 78 of them in custody.  

As Thailand enters the last week before an election, the unresolved mass killing in Narathiwat should be a topic for serious public debate; however, the announcement of this new inquiry passed with barely a comment. Clearly, nobody expects it to resolve anything. The head of the new inquiry is already reported to have said that it is too early to conclude whether or not the three officers will be punished. If they are, the worst possible outcome will be dismissal from the armed forces. 

The government of Thailand hijacked the making of inquiries into the Narathiwat killings from the start. Instead of the independent judicial investigation that should have followed swiftly in order to prosecute those army and police personnel found to be criminally liable, the government assembled a team to study and report to it on what happened last October. Although the ostensible purpose of this panel was to make public the truth behind the events in Narathiwat and hold the perpetrators accountable, its real purpose was to obstruct the possibility that the victims and their families would obtain true justice. That purpose has now been realised. The full findings of the inquiry have not been made public–despite government assertions that they would be–and only the three senior officers may face any possible repercussions. 

From the time that the true scale of the killings became known, the Asian Human Rights Commission has urged that an independent judicial inquiry be undertaken into the tragedy. It has repeatedly warned that to delay or deny judicial proceedings in this instance would obstruct justice. Sadly, the delaying and denying tactics employed by the government since have proven successful. The prospect that the perpetrators of these killings will ever be prosecuted is now very remote indeed. 

The consequences of this failure will be felt most of all by the families of the victims, who must reconcile themselves to the fact that they are unlikely to ever obtain redress for the deaths of their loved ones. However, the effects will also be felt by many other people in Thailand during coming months and years, in the form of further mass killings and gross violations of human rights. The murders of at least 2500 alleged drug dealers in 2003, and the killings in the south during April and October 2004, all point the way for more to come. 

One hitherto unrecognised consequence of the December 2004 tsunami is that it washed away not only hundreds of thousands of lives, houses and property, but also a great many other issues of importance to people of the region. The victims of Narathiwat too have been dragged under: amid daily tsunami recovery updates and political grandstanding by members of parliament seeking re-election, virtually not a word is heard of their plight. 

This is deeply unfortunate not only for the victims and their families, but also for the entire judicial and criminal system in Thailand. The failure to properly address the many unanswered questions remaining after the Narathiwat killings has left as many questions hanging over the serious defects in the administration of justice. In the end, the only thing that the inquiries into the killings appear to have established is that the impunity of security officials there is more powerful than the justice system. 

Under those circumstances, it is impossible for Thailand to uphold its commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 2 of which stipulates that the state has an obligation to provide the victims of rights violations access to effective judicial remedies. What the families of victims in Narathiwat have been taught is that investigation and prosecution are powers subject to the discretion of the state: where it chooses not to allow investigators and prosecutors to do their jobs, nothing can be done. 

The Asian Human Rights Commission again calls upon all concerned persons in Thailand, particularly senators, lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders, to keep alive the public debate on the killings at Narathiwat, and continue to demand that a full independent judicial inquiry be held, lest the foundations of the justice system and human rights regime there be further weakened, to the detriment of all persons in the country. May justice–not political and military inquiries–finally prevail.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-07-2005
Countries : Thailand,
Issues : Administration of justice, Extrajudicial killings, Judicial system, Rule of law,