THAILAND: No penalties for generals and no rule of law in Thailand

In exonerating the three generals identified as having been primarily responsible for the killing of at least 85 persons in Narathiwat province on October 25 of last year, the Thai army commander-in-chief General Pravit Wongsuwan made a surprisingly frank admission. “There is no disciplinary penalty for those holding the rank of general,” he is reported to have said.  

This statement reveals how far removed the thinking of top military officers in Thailand is from civilised ideas of what constitutes a modern society and its armed forces. The military principle of command responsibility is that the higher one’s rank the greater the onus when things go wrong. A high officer is more liable than a low one. In Thailand, however, it appears that the higher one goes the lesser one’s responsibility. And if one is promoted to general there is no responsibility at all. 

That generals are above the law is a feudal way of thinking. It amounts to rule by lords, not rule by law. If the high-ranking officers in any armed forces are permitted to escape the consequences of their actions, let alone think in this manner, it is impossible to secure the rule of law. Under such circumstances, to maintain the pretence of subscribing to international laws, as Thailand has done, is meaningless. 

Last October in Narathiwat at least 78 people died in army trucks. They died at the hands of the military. Whether accidental or deliberate is no matter. The death of such a large number of persons in a single incident is under any circumstances a grave crime and a gross abuse of human rights. The gravity of the offence and not the rank of those who committed the crime should be the determining factor in taking action. 

The only proper place for an inquiry into October 25 is in a court of law: the charges, murder and manslaughter. That these crimes were committed by the military does not make them lesser crimes. What is the meaning of ‘equality before the law’ if not this? Equality before the law requires that all citizens be treated equally for their offences. The quality of citizenship is not a matter of military rank. A crime is a crime whether committed by the least important person in a society or the most important one. 

Thus, the statement of the Thai commander-in-chief is offensive. It offends the ideal of equality before the law, and it offends the fundamentals of the rule of law and human rights. When large-scale killings under the command of senior officers are treated as mere trifles, the security forces and society alike are sent a message that they live by different standards. The deaths in Narathiwat last October lowered the esteem of the armed forces and law enforcement in Thailand both at home and abroad. When the highest military officer in the country then belittles the whole affair, it is unlikely to do anything other than further diminish the reputation of the military. It certainly will do nothing to diminish the daily escalating violence that has held the south of Thailand in its grip since the killings occurred last year. 

How is it that the fate of these officers was left in the hands of the military at all? From the beginning, the Asian Human Rights Commission has stressed that the whole matter should have been turned over to the attorney general. Yet his office has been notable only in its absence from the entire discussion around the killings. Neither has the minister of justice had much to say. And even if the matter was turned over to the military it should have been addressed through a properly-established formal tribunal, operating under established procedures for investigation and punishment, rather than being treated with such casual disdain. 

The exoneration of these three officers violates the Thai Penal Code and 1997 Constitution and flouts the country’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The power to excuse the perpetrators of serious crimes from prosecution lies not in the hands of any one person or his office. It is a matter for the courts. The Thai authorities will stand accused of their wanton failure to prosecute those responsible for the mass killing in Narathiwat until such a day as they decide to take the proper and necessary steps to the contrary. The army officers who have this week been excused should not sit too comfortably. They would do well to note that the former dictator of Chile was arrested while abroad and legally detained on the grounds that he too had command responsibility over the military officers committing torture and disappearances under his regime. The reprieve they have been granted may be temporary. 

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-26-2005
Countries : Thailand,
Issues : Judicial system, Rule of law,