As details emerge about what happened in Narathiwat province of southern Thailand this October 25, extremely serious questions must now be asked.
The first key question is how is it possible that so many persons could have died from suffocation in army vehicles? According to Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand, deputy director of the Forensic Science Institute, most of the 78 persons who died were packed into the front of army trucks and had no serious injuries. However, a government spokesperson said that some in the trucks had died of injuries sustained outside the police station. Dr Pornthip also suggested that all of the victims had died at around midnight on Monday. This corresponds to the time that the army says the victims were in transit to a camp in a neighbouring province, 120kms away. How could all have died around the same time in the course such a long journey, in more than one vehicle? And how is it that they would have not sustained injuries while convulsing or suffocating, and that the drivers of the trucks and other security personnel would have not heard anything, let alone done something about it?
Of particular concern are allegations by the government spokesperson that some of the victims had been on drugs. No evidence has been reported on to substantiate this. If evidence is available, the government should at once produce it for independent verification. In the absence of such evidence, it is otherwise a cynical and terrible exercise to blame people for their deaths in army trucks on illegal drug taking.
According to media reports, Dr Pornthip has not ruled out the possibility that the victims were deliberately suffocated, although there are also questions hanging over the amount of time that was available to conduct autopsies. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has repeatedly pointed out that for justice to be secured, full and independent autopsies must be conducted. Where clouds of doubt are left hanging over the circumstances of death, inadequate autopsies are the perpetrator’s best friend. Therefore, the Forensic Science Institute must be given every available opportunity and resource to do its job properly, irrespective of extenuating circumstances.
The whole event throws into relief Thailand’s obligations to its citizens both under its own constitution and under international law. Without regard to other factors, once the victims were in custody of the army, its personnel had a duty of responsibility and care for them. The custodial deaths of such a large number of persons raise serious questions about the failure of the security personnel concerned to exercise those obligations. Thailand has not signed or ratified the Convention against Torture, although it has indicated for some time that it will do so. If the country were a party to that convention, these deaths would fall under the definition of cruel and inhuman treatment, making it answerable to the relevant international mechanisms. With this incident, it is time that the government takes the necessary steps to that end.
The second key question is what is happening to the very large number of persons, estimated at 1300, still in custody? Their friends and relatives in villages across the south of Thailand are awaiting news of their loved-ones, growing increasingly restless. What are the reasons for such a large number to be detained for this time? The army has indicated that they are being held for questioning, and it has the martial law powers necessary to keep them. But given the number of persons involved and the very deep public concern arising from this incident, it must do more to provide answers and give access to these detainees, or release them. Failure to do so will only create many more questions about why these persons are still in detention, what they may have witnessed, and what the military is trying to achieve by prolonging the crisis in this manner.
The Prime Minister, Dr Thaksin Shinawatra, has now agreed that the killings should not have happened, and expressed remorse while indicating to the Senate that an inquiry will be established to probe the events in Narathiwat. His words are appreciated; however, early indications in the media suggest that a committee may be hastily established under the control of regional administrative officials with instructions to dispose of the matter as quickly as possible. This would be a far cry from the full independent judicial and legislative inquiries at the highest levels that are now absolutely essential to answer the questions of the victims’ families. For any inquiry to be credible, it must meet their needs by way of collection and publication of available evidence, recommendations on legal actions against responsible officials, and restitution for their loss. Where the government fails in undertaking these obligations, people’s organisations should be prepared to take responsibility for making inquiries and publishing their findings so that a public record may at least exist to shed light on the events.
The Asian Human Rights Commission is also concerned that in light of the scale and nature of the killings, the government of Thailand must be prepared to admit a role for international bodies in uncovering the truth and finding a way forward. In particular, the UN Special Rapporteurs of the Commission on Human Rights for extrajudicial killings and torture, and the Working Group on disappearances, should be invited to participate in activities towards achieving a satisfactory outcome to the tragedy.