Murder as public policy in Thailand

Nick Cheesman, Projects Officer, Asian Legal Resource Centre

Between February and April 2003 the Thai government incited police and public officials to organize and endorse murder in the name of ridding the country of drugs. Through a series of official orders and public statements, the government pushed officials to massively overstep their normal authority. It also set up numerous positive and negative incentives, including promises of financial rewards and promotions, and threats of transfers and dismissals. By May, more than 2000 persons were killed, and the country’s key institutions for the protection of human rights were seriously compromised.

Administering murder

On January 28 the Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, set the anti-drug crusade in motion. Prime Minister’s Office Orders 29/2546, 30/2456 and 31/2546, effective from February 1, aimed to combat the enormous drug manufacture, trafficking and use in Thailand “quickly, consistently and permanently”. They ordered the establishment of the National Command Centre for Combating Drugs, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyuth, to oversee the “Concerted Effort of the Nation to Overcome Drugs” campaign. They set out its basic responsibilities, including planning, coordination and reporting, and established an administrative structure and tasks throughout the country. The orders gave the programme the “highest priority”, indicating to officials that they would be closely monitored, and that the government was prepared both to reward high performers and punish laggards. The Prime Minister boosted incentives in two sets of regulations issued on February 11. One of those was the Prime Minister’s Office Regulations on Bonuses and Rewards Relating to Narcotics (No. 3). This document amended two earlier reward regimes, and effectively encouraged the murder of drug suspects by providing grades of bonuses where the most efficient and expedient means for officials to be rewarded was simply to kill the accused:

Article 18 of the Prime Minister’s Office Regulations on Bonuses and Rewards Relating to Narcotics BE 2537 (1994), which had been amended by the Prime Minister’s Office Regulations on Bonuses and Rewards Relating to Narcotics (No. 2) BE 2540 (1997)… shall be replaced by the following statements:

“Article 18: The bonus shall be given when officials proceed with a notified case leading to arrest according to the following rules and conditions:
(1) In a case where both the alleged offender is arrested and the exhibited narcotics are seized, if the value calculated based on the quantity of narcotics does not exceed 1000 Baht, each case shall be paid not exceeding 1000 Baht, after the Public Prosecutor has issued a prosecution order. If the case falls under Section 92 of the Narcotics Control Act BE 2522 (1979) and Section 17 of the Royal Ordinance of the Control on the Use of Volatile Substances BE 2533 (1990), the bonus shall not be paid.
(2) In a case where the alleged offender is arrested and the exhibited narcotics are seized, if the value calculated based on the quantity of narcotics exceeds 1000 Baht
(a) In a case where the Public Prosecutor issues a prosecution order, the bonus calculated based on the quantity of narcotics may be paid in half before the Public Prosecutor issues a prosecution order. The remaining amount is to be paid in full when the Public Prosecutor has issued a prosecution order.
(b) The bonus calculated based on the quantity of narcotics shall be paid only in half if the Public Prosecutor has issued a non-prosecution order, or ceased the proceedings.
(3) In a case where both the alleged offender is arrested and the exhibited narcotics are seized, but the alleged offender loses his life during the arrest or thereafter, if the value calculated based on the quantity of narcotics exceeds 1000 Baht, the bonus shall be paid according to the quantity of narcotics when the Public Prosecutor has ceased the proceedings.
(4) In a case where only the exhibited narcotics are seized after the Public Prosecutor has stayed the inquiry, issued a prosecution or non-prosecution order, if the value calculated based on the quantity of narcotics exceeds 1000 Baht, only half of the bonus shall be paid.”
(Unofficial translation of article 4, italics added to subsection 3)

At later dates, certain rewards were increased so that, for instance, a state official seizing property that had been purchased with drug money could get up to 40 per cent of its value.

Public statements enabled and encouraged what was on paper. The Prime Minister consistently portrayed drug dealers as sub-humans deserving to die. He also played down the deaths relative to the apparent successes of the campaign, wondering aloud why the killing of thousands of people who had not yet been proven guilty of any crime should be worthy of public attention or scrutiny. Even in reiterating the official line, that most deaths were just cases of “bad guys killing bad guys”, or “killing to cut the link”, he stated that the government had no responsibility to protect these undesirable citizens. This position, however, was already quite a step-down from remarks he reportedly made to senior government officials from across the country at a meeting in the lead-up to the campaign on January 15. “We have to shoot to kill and confiscate their assets as well, so their sinful inheritance will not be passed on,” he is reported to have said, adding, “We must be brutal enough because drug dealers have been brutal to our children. Today, three million Thai youths are into drugs and 700,000 are deeply addicted. To be cruel to drug dealers is therefore appropriate.” The Prime Minister’s remarks were supported at all levels of government, not least of all by the Interior Minister, Wan Mohamad Noor Matha, who remarked memorably that drug dealers “will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace”. The language used by the Prime Minister and his officials throughout the campaign also sought to evoke a feeling of being at war, such as in a March 2 address when he said, “Don’t be moved by the high death figures. We must be adamant and finish this war… When you go to war and some of your enemies die, you cannot become soft-hearted, otherwise the surviving enemy will return to kill you.” He also referred to drug dealers and their accomplices as “traitors”. Over time, this language found its way into policy documents, such as Prime Minister’s Order No. 60/2546, which states in its preamble that “the ‘Concerted Effort of the Nation to Overcome Drugs’ is specifically regarded as a state of war”.

Provincial governors and police chiefs were motivated to act according to a strict timetable. Their performance was measured by statistics on drug dealers ‘removed’ from society on a month by month basis, starting with 25 per cent of the total by the end of February, 50 per cent by the of March, and 100 per cent by the end of April. The final figure was later reduced to 75 per cent, and a plan drawn up to deal with the remaining 25 per cent at a more leisurely pace by the King’s birthday in December. Underachieving provinces were announced publicly and senior officials openly threatened with the sack or transfers. Clearly an enormous amount of pressure was applied to meet unreasonable and arbitrary targets. And it was not enough for officials merely to present figures of arrests, convictions and deaths of dealers: they had to target thousands of specific persons, whose names were on lists.

Watchlists, blacklists, deathlists

From the start of the campaign, the lists of alleged drug dealers were a source of confusion. There were contradictory stories about how the lists were prepared, how many there were, and the implications of being on one. There appeared at times to be competing lists, and different ways of managing them in different provinces. They seem to have been drawn up from August 2002 by the police, village heads and local administrative bodies under the Interior Ministry, and the Office of the Narcotics Control Board. Whereas the police claim to have relied upon informants and leads, it appears that often they just added names from records of earlier convictions—some going back years. As for the lists prepared by local administrators, reports suggest that in many places the village or subdistrict chiefs simply called public meetings and asked people to inform on persons selling drugs in the neighbourhood, without any further investigation. The Interior Ministry claims that lists were cross-checked before final definitive versions were sent out, however in some places police refused to rely on the Interior Ministry lists after criticism that too many innocent persons were being arrested or killed. Meanwhile, the head of the Narcotics Suppression Bureau, Police Lieutenant General Chalermdej Chomphunuj tried to clarify matters by explaining that there were two types of lists in operation: a ‘blacklist’ of targets for arrest, and a ‘watchlist’ of those “pending investigation”. The police commander suggested that the watchlists were comprised of persons who would be investigated, and not arrested automatically. Only a month into the campaign, however, and there were admissions by senior officials that mistakes had been made on the lists. Around 4000 names were removed from the original 46,000-name watchlist, in response to public complaints. By that time over half of the total victims of the ‘war’ were already dead.

Whatever the mechanics of the lists, the consequence of being on one was possible death. Although the manner of killings varied across the country, the most commonly described pattern was as follows:
1. A victim’s name would appear on a list. The list would be made public knowledge, by word of mouth, or other means.
2. The victim would receive a letter or some other notice instructing her to go to the police station.
3. At the police station, the victim would be coerced to sign something admitting guilt, or otherwise acknowledge guilt, with promises by the police that her name would be removed from the list.
4. The victim would be shot on the way home, or within a few days, usually by a group of men in civilian clothes, in daylight and in a public place or at her house, often in front of and without regard to witnesses.
5. Police would fail to investigate the killing properly, and would concentrate on establishing the victim’s guilt as a drug dealer.

Although Lieutenant General Chalermdej tried to reassure a nervous public that, “We don’t simply write down the names of drug suspects on a list and go out to terminate them,” the death toll early in the campaign was dramatic. Dozens of people were being killed daily. An anonymous police colonel was reported as having said that his superiors had in fact ordered him to collect information on drug dealers and then kill the informants and track down and kill those named. “Why should we spare the scum?” he was quoted as saying, echoing the Prime Minister’s sentiments. A police station in the north got into the spirit of the campaign by piling a dozen coffins onto its doorstep.

At the end of February, police in most places had already dealt with their key targets, but were under pressure to continue meeting monthly percentiles imposed on them by Bangkok. Desperate to appear vigilant and keep their jobs, officers began arresting informants or questioning persons with tenuous links to suspects who had already been ‘removed’ from the lists. Persons who had merely participated in drug control programmes were targeted. In some places, ‘complaints boxes’ and anonymous hotlines were set up for people to inform on one another. Police are alleged to have increasingly resorted to planting of evidence and coercion to obtain confessions from suspects.

One characteristic of the campaign was the lack of police investigations after victims were murdered. Police sometimes excused themselves on the grounds that they needed all their resources to meet the government targets, however the acting director of the Forensic Science Institute, Dr Pornthip Rojanasunan, doubted these explanations. In mid-February she observed that her agency had resources available to help investigate cases, but the police were not seeking its assistance. Whereas before February the Institute had typically examined one to two extrajudicial killings per day, the number of referrals had since dropped to zero. She said that relatives of those killed had contacted the Institute directly to get help in having the deaths properly investigated, “But not much can be done if the first autopsy is conducted elsewhere and the lethal bullets removed.” Other doctors also reported that they were reluctant to attend the scenes of drug-related shootings as required by law, or record anything that did not verify the police version of events.

Where police did attend the murder scenes, their investigations and questions were typically directed towards establishing the victims’ guilt, rather than take action to arrest the murderers. For instance, in the case of Somjit Kuanyuyen, instead of collecting evidence the police reportedly interrogated her daughter about her mother’s presumed involvement in the drug trade. Where evidence of drug trading was uncovered, it was also used to justify the murder and effectively close the case. When Bussaporn Pung-am was killed, for instance, police briefed the media on how they found court documents in her house showing she had acted as a guarantor for drug suspects, and added that she had been previously arrested on drug charges. The implication of these remarks, as in so many other cases, was that she deserved to die.

Another feature of the campaign was the rise and subsequent fall of the death tally. In February, the Interior Ministry published a daily count of arrests, seizures and killings. As attention increasingly focused on the death toll, the government grew uneasy and accused journalists of misrepresenting the tally. By the end of February, public releases of statistics on killings were banned, in response to growing criticism. At the date of the last official tally, on February 26, 1140 persons had been murdered. However, later police did release statistics indicating that to April 16, 2275 persons were killed, 51 by their own agency in “self defence”. By the end of the month the figure was estimated to be around 2400, however by this stage the government was backing away from the statistic, arguing that perhaps half of the murders had been incorrectly recorded.

The death toll was retracted after the first month partly due to growing international alarm over the number of killings. However, as talk grew of possible United Nations involvement, the Prime Minister reacted with annoyance, as reported in The Nation on February 15:

Regarding the reported inquiry by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights into Thailand’s current crackdown against drugs, I believe we have nothing to hide. Nothing to worry about… The campaign against drugs will continue, unchanged… The international community owes us an expression of thanks [for reducing the drug trade]. We should not be over-sensitive to what others say. One should put things into perspective. How many policemen have been killed by drug dealers? I lost count of the number of wreaths that I have sent to funerals of policemen killed in the line of duty. Do our critics consider the wretched lives of drug dealers more precious than our policemen’s? Any policemen who kills an innocent person will be prosecuted. Don’t be too self-conscious. Don’t try too hard to live up to international standards. Our country already looks good in the eyes of the international community.

Whereas the Prime Minister pretended not to care about overseas opinion, his comments and actions betrayed otherwise. He eventually permitted a visit by Hina Jilani, the United Nations Special Representative on human rights defenders. Although the Special Representative spent most of her time on matters unrelated to the anti-drug campaign she did raise her concerns with the Prime Minister and the media. In response the Prime Minister launched a personal attack on the Special Representative, remarking, “She is biased and not acceptable. She made unfair remarks about our country. I complained in a talk with her that if she thought the human rights in Thailand are not up to standard, she should look at other UN members including Pakistan, her mother country.”

Media and public response

One of the reasons that the government could effectively get away with murder was the widespread belief, even among its critics, that an overwhelming number of people in Thailand supported the campaign. Tired of seeing drug dealers run rampant across the country, it was said, most were happy to see the government finally do something decisive. The generally accepted view was that the ends justified the means, so long as the persons killed could in fact be considered guilty of a crime. This attitude was captured in a non-government organization’s report on the killing of four ethnic Hmong men, among whom only the village head was thought to be guilty of drug trading:

The family members of village head don’t want to talk about this case and they could accept the killing because the head of the village did sell drugs and in their opinion he deserved to be punished (killed). But, the relatives of the other 3 could not accept their killing. They believe that this action was from the police and they are very angry the police executed innocent people.

At the same time, however, as the number of deaths rapidly increased, a wave of fear distorted polls and other means to assess the campaign’s popularity. Whatever the case, whether out of genuine support or intimidation, few people were prepared to come out in opposition to the ‘war’.

The media response also was problematic. Although daily reporting the latest events, coverage was mostly of comments by officials and chillingly verbatim descriptions of killings as given by police, such as this from the Bangkok Post of February 15:

Eight people were yesterday gunned down in Nakhon Phanom province in separate incidents, believed to be drug-related. Five of the victims were killed in Si Songkhram, two in Na Kae and one in That Phanom districts.
In Si Songkhram, Sermsiri Tamonnin, 34, the first victim, was found dead in her house in tambon Ban Uang at 6am. She had been shot in the head and body.
Thien Mokmeechai, 46, was gunned down in his house in tambon Phon Sawang at 6.30am. Witnesses said a man came on a motorcycle, walked into the house and opened fire at Thien.
At about the same time, Amporn Phiewkham, 43, was shot dead at his house in tambon Tha Bo.
Vinai Nakajat, 40, was killed by an assailant in tambon Sam Phong.
In tambon Hat Phaeng, Sompong Promson, 49, was shot at by gunmen while eating inside his house.
In That Phanom district, Suriya Thong-on was gunned down in front of his house in tambon Na Thon.
Killed in their home in Na Kae district about noon were Thanomsak Moonsurin, 40, and his wife Chalaolak, 39.
Nakhon Phanom police chief Pol Maj-Gen Paiboon Phetplai said all of those killed were on record as having been involved in the drug trade.

Media and public concern was restricted to the suffering of obvious innocents, rather than the practice of murder as public policy. An exemplary case was when police shot nine-year-old Chakraphan Srisa-ard in his family’s car, as his mother sped away. Had the child not been in the car, it would have been another simple affair of a dead drug dealer for the police to file away. Unfortunately for the officers involved, the young boy’s death aroused national ire, and somehow the need for justice in this one case overrode everything else that happened across these three months. The media also focused on the hardships endured by relatives of victims after their deaths. A May 28 article in The Nation, for instance, reported on the families of the four Hmong men mentioned above:

Somchai Sae Thao’s death has left his wife “Yeng” and their seven children in a distressing situation. The heritage left to them by his death is an uncertain future. As she contemplated her fate, Yeng dropped her eyes to her swelling stomach—a new baby is due soon but it will have no father to provide food and sustenance. Her 15-year-old eldest son is the family’s only hope now. Every day, the boy goes to ask his neighbours whether they want him to work on their farm. Some days the boy is able to return home with something for the family—other days his mother and younger sisters and brothers get nothing to eat.

The media narrowed its reporting onthe campaign in part due to overt and covert government threats. As Chaiyan Rajchagool, a lecturer in Social Science at Chiang Mai University noted, “No one objects to drug suppression. But if you raise questions, you can be blamed as someone who supports the drug dealers.” This was apparent when the Defense Minister responded to newspaper criticism by suggesting that journalists were in drug dealers’ pockets. Additionally, the Prime Minister is himself a media and communications tycoon whose influence and financial power can be used subtly in many ways, as Senator Mareerath Kaewkar noted, remarking that for a newspaper or magazine, “One criticism too many could cost millions of Baht in withdrawn advertising.”

The media’s inability to come to terms with the extent and depth of the crisis has left a hole where there used to be public debate in Thailand. Whereas television discussion forums had in recent years become places for lively exchange, with diverse opinions, analysis, and large audiences, now these are gone. The public space for dissent has been markedly reduced. Critics of government actions are restricted to seminars in universities or small gatherings of non-government organizations. Even in these forums, speakers may attack individuals or their actions, but are reluctant to address questions of policy. According to Mark Tamthai, a retired philosophy professor and consultant to the National Security Council, “There is no place in Thailand now where you can publicly study the consequences of government policies.”

Role of the National Human Rights Commission

The position of the National Human Rights Commission has been seriously compromised by the anti-drugs campaign. The Commission, which was only established in 1999, was effectively silenced by the government, and has been unable to excite the public in defence of the principles it represents.

From the beginning, the Commission received relatively few complaints, and most of those were from persons objecting to their names being on a list, not families of murder victims. The Commission did respond to the complaints it received and followed-up on them with the relevant authorities, resulting in amendments to lists made later. However, even this relatively small number of complaints stretched its resources, and it was restricted to dealing with individual cases rather than seriously addressing systemic problems.

The real difficulties for the Commission began when the government attacked one of its members, Professor Pradit Charoenthaithawee, for reporting on the extrajudicial killings during a UN meeting he attended overseas. After returning to Thailand, Professor Pradit received death threats, and calls for his impeachment. In a national radio address, the Prime Minister launched a personal attack on Professor Pradit, and accused him of overstepping his authority as a human rights commissioner. “Let us deal with the UN, because that is our job. Those who are not responsible for such duties should keep away,” the Prime Minister said. General Panlop Pinmanee, deputy chief of the Internal Security Operations Command, accused Professor Pradit of being an ally of drug dealers. As a result, the Commission was forced onto the back foot, and spent its time defending its mandate and the reputations of its members, rather than addressing the crisis directly. The Chairman of the Commission, Professor Saneh Chamarik, was obliged to announce that in principle the Commission supported the government’s drug suppression policies, so long as in practice they did not violate human rights and the country’s Constitution. His conciliatory approach, however, was not responded to favourably by the Prime Minister, who later refused to meet with the commissioners.

Responding to criticism about his management of the campaign, rather than engage the National Human Rights Commission, the Prime Minister opted for another approach. He set up committees to report directly to him, thereby sidelining the country’s permanent national human rights institution. In two orders of February 28, the Prime Minister established the Committee to Examine the Performance of Competent Narcotics Law Enforcement Officials in Drug Suppression and, the Committee to Monitor the Protection of Informants and Witnesses in Drug Suppression. “I expect the two committees to ensure the rule of law and fairness in the anti-drug campaign,” the Prime Minister said. “Critics of the campaign should now direct their empathy to our children who are victims of the drug menace, instead of sounding the alarm for falling traffickers.” The first committee sought police and public cooperation in investigating killings, and whether police had followed procedures in making reports, researching crimes and performing autopsies. However, in April the Deputy Attorney General responsible for overseeing the work complained that the committee had not yet received a single report from the police, let alone clear figures on the number of the cases to investigate. In response, police claimed that they hadn’t received any requests for reports. Meanwhile, the committee also failed to draw any response from a silent and intimidated public, despite appeals for victims to come forward.

The aftermath

On May 1 the Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared the ‘war on drugs’ a success and immediately launched his newest war, against rather more nebulous “dark influences”. Within a few days, local authorities in Mae Sot district, Tak, had summarily executed six Burmese migrant labourers, under the impression that they could now ‘remove’ whatever target suited them. Meanwhile, the ‘war on drugs’ is set to continue throughout the year, albeit more low-key; the Prime Minister, it seems, has not tired of the fight.

The anti-drug campaign may have temporarily stemmed the flow and consumption of amphetamines throughout Thailand, but the damage to its institutions will be much more enduring, among them, the parliament, judiciary, police and media. Thailand now has a Prime Minister, a legislative head, who is acting like the head of the executive. It has a police force and government that are complicit in mass murder and have learnt that performance is tied to the payment of commissions. It has a cowed and submissive bureaucracy, and a diminished media.

Above all, a widespread attitude apparently exists that certain types of criminals should simply be shot dead. If this mentality prevails, there is little hope of maintaining an effectively functioning judicial system, as the presumption will be that courts and their procedures can be bypassed or done away with altogether when convenient. In neighbouring Cambodia, where the legal system is still barely operational ten years after the United Nations completed its tenure, alleged motorcycle thieves are beaten to death on the streets rather than it being left to the state to mete out justice. By comparison, what has happened in Thailand this year, where there is an established legal system, is far worse. The killings of alleged drug dealers were organized and approved by decree. The perception that a particular category of persons could be gunned down in their houses and cars was officially approved. The sidestepping of due process was authorized by the state. When clearly innocent people were listed or killed, the state was resented, but so long as the majority of victims were successfully portrayed as guilty, the state proclaimed overwhelming approval. The real challenge for human rights defenders in Thailand, then, lies not in fighting for the rights of the innocent, but rather in fighting for the rights of the guilty.