A comment on the consequences of extrajudicial killings in Thailand

Basil Fernando, Excecutive Director, Asian Legal Resource centre

The effect of drugs on a population can be very dangerous. However, the effect of extrajudicial killings on a justice system is lethal. The latter can contribute much more to the instability, insecurity and degeneration of society than the former. Law enforcement agencies involved directly or indirectly in extrajudicial killings lose all legitimacy.

When a newly emerging democracy such as Thailand allows extrajudicial killings to occur, in fact it is reviving old practices where punishments were meted out at the wish of the rulers without any references to limits imposed by law and morality. Such practices were there for centuries and are part of the people’s psyche. The principles of the rule of law introduced by constitutions have only a short history. Any hope of their internalization by people is seriously interrupted by the reintroduction of old practices. This has a tremendously negative impact on democratization. Only those who oppose democratization benefit when such an abrupt reintroduction of old practices takes place. It may be said that with such large-scale extrajudicial killings, Thailand has been pushed many steps backwards.

A law enforcement agency that knows it has blood on its hands due to direct or indirect involvement in extrajudicial killings cannot think of itself with a sense of integrity. When there is such doubt in an organization, it is difficult to control corruption. Thai law enforcement agencies are not known to be free from corruption, however, there have been many moves in recent years to introduce greater measures to control its spread. The present wave of extrajudicial killings has set such developments back a long way.

Another disastrous consequence of this situation is the establishment or hardening of criminal and police links. The extrajudicial killings that have occurred in Thailand across recent months have involved the specialization of functions shared between law enforcement agency personnel and some criminal elements. For example, a person is called to a police station to make a statement and then on his way back home is killed by unknown persons. Such activities are well coordinated, and will not end with these killings. A new relationship has been established between the actual killers and the planners of the killings. Law enforcement officers are in normal circumstances expected to catch criminals. However, now they have become collaborators in murder. How a law enforcement agency can get out of this trap is hard to imagine.

Extrajudicial killings bring in secrecy and deception. There will be a need to deny the responsibility of individuals and also the entire system. For this the law enforcement agency will have to develop a communication policy in which complete or partial falsehood will be allowed out of necessity. When the number of killings has exceeded 2000 persons, such falsifications will have to be done on a large scale. It is only natural that such falsification will have an effect within the institution. Besides that, the public image of the institution will change, as those persons who are quite aware of the facts will be cynical due to institutional fabrications of events.

The group that will be lied to the most will be the family members and associates of those who have been killed. The institution will have to withhold information about the death of a particular person and give family members false information. This will also have to be done to other members of the public, and the media. Thus, the relationship with the public will be marked by deception. The result is that the institution will be lowered in the estimation of the people. Such loss of prestige of a public institution is seriously harmful to the rule of law and democracy.

As the Prime Minister has encouraged this policy, his government will have to protect the officers who are directly or indirectly involved in these killings. Thus, the moral authority of the government over its law enforcement agencies has been greatly diminished. The involved politicians will now have to enter into many compromises with officers. Thus disciplinary control of law enforcement agencies will be even more difficult after these incidents.

These are but a few consequences of allowing such extrajudicial killings to occur. Anyone who cares for democracy and the rule of law should worry about this turn of events. Perhaps many years of struggle for democracy are now being undermined in a very subtle but brutal way. The anti-corruption drive, right to information law, autopsy law and other achiements like the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission have all been undermined in one stroke.

It is necessary to investigate this whole affair and to redress those who have been wronged. Above all, law enforcement agencies should be cleansed of those who have blood on their hands.