The Long Wait for Justice in Thailand

The junta shows little
interest in probing hundreds of unsolved murders from Thaksin’s
2003 drug war.

2003thai
Back in February 2003,
Thai police called in Somjit Khayandee for questioning after her name
turned up on a blacklist of suspected methamphetamine dealers in
Petchburi province. The nearly illiterate 42-year-old grocer was
confused, and signed an affidavit saying she had nothing to do with
the drug trade.

Three days later, four
men wearing black shirts, black pants, hats and sunglasses stepped
inside her shophouse. They ordered some beer, and then promptly fired
eight bullets into Somjit as her pregnant daughter, seven-year-old
granddaughter and four other relatives looked on.

“I do not
understand,” Somjit’s daughter said, recounting her
mother’s story to Human Rights Watch in its 2004 report “Not
Enough Graves” examining Thailand’s notorious crackdown
on drugs four years ago.

“If the police
believed that my mother was a drug dealer, they should have come and
searched our shophouse,” she said. “They did not seem to
be interested in investigating and arresting people that killed my
mother, although they said she was killed by a drug gang.”

Somjit was killed along
with more than 2,000 others in 2003 as part of deposed Prime Minister
Thaksin Shinawatra’s so-called War on Drugs. Although the
extra-judicial deaths have riled human rights groups for years, no
independent panel has ever surfaced to properly investigate the
killings   until now, that is.

Last week, the Justice
Ministry suddenly announced that it would re-open investigations into
the killings. An independent body led by a former attorney general
will examine whether the deaths were simply drug dealers shooting
each other, as Thaksin’s government rather implausibly claimed,
or if security forces took the law into their own hands.

“Thousands of
lives have been tossed away like fish or vegetables, therefore we
must find the person responsible,” Justice Ministry official
Jaran Pukdithanakul told reporters in announcing the probe. “We
must have an answer for society how these 2,500 people died.”

But despite the
sanctimonious words, Thailand is unlikely to get any answers on the
drug war deaths anytime soon. Although the current military-installed
government now has a great incentive to make the former premier look
like a ruthless murderer, the long delay in launching the
investigation stems from a combination of widespread public support
for the drug war and its support from those in the military who
launched the coup that booted Thaksin out in September last year.

Indeed, many Thaksin
critics believed the drug war served as one of the greatest
justifications for the putsch. But while army-appointed investigators
have been combing through Thaksin’s business dealings, the
silence on the drug war has been deafening.

“We as a network
of human rights workers and activists have urged the government again
and again to look into these human rights violations, which occurred
on such a scale that it turned a ripple into a huge tidal wave in the
South,” former senator and vehement Thaksin critic Kraisak
Choonhavan said in an interview, referring to the vicious insurgency
in the predominately Malay-Muslim South that re-erupted around the
time the drug war was launched.

“The government
chose to ignore the drug war almost completely even though we
presented 40 very tight cases out of thousands,” he said. “They
only decided to meekly launch this investigation after a human rights
organization wrote a letter to the Premier League.”

The July 30 letter — 
written by Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch to the Premier League to
protest Thaksin’s purchase of football club Manchester City  —
made news all over the globe. In citing the war on drugs as the “most
disturbing period of Mr. Thaksin’s rule,” Adams wrote:
“His past actions should lead to him being subjected to
investigations by impartial police and prosecutors, not welcomed into
the club of owners of the most popular football league in the world.”

Richard Scudamore, the
Premier League’s CEO, responded by essentially saying that none
of the allegations against Thaksin have been proven: “Should
you have presented your evidence to the authorities we would be
interested to know how they responded to you,” he wrote.

Certainly authorities
have done nothing much so far, and it’s not hard to see why.
Opinion polls showed that the drug war was immensely popular among
the Thai public, so an investigation into the murders is unlikely to
score the junta many political points.

In addition, the
campaign proved successful at stemming use of ya baa, “crazy
medicine” in Thai, as methamphetamine is known locally. “For
years, Thailand used to have the world’s highest
methamphetamine prevalence figures, but this changed following the
market crackdown in 2003,” says the UN’s 2007 World Drug
Report released in June.

Although the war on
drugs “unfortunately” led to a high number of casualties,
the report says, “there is no doubt that the methamphetamine
situation in Thailand is far better today than it was at the peak of
the methamphetamine epidemic in 2001.”

Moreover, it says, the
crackdown led to a “massive increase in demand for treatment,
which helped eliminate a large number of potential consumers from the
market.”

At the time, the drug
war received plenty of support from top members of the security
forces, as well as the palace. The campaign was seen as a response to
King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s annual birthday speech in 2002
calling for the government to solve the “methamphetamine
problem.”

In December 2003, the
king called on Thaksin to investigate how each person died. But in
the same speech he also said: “Victory in the war on drugs is
good. They may blame the crackdown for more than 2,500 deaths, but
this is a small price to pay. If the prime minister failed to curb
[the drug trade], over the years the number of deaths would easily
surpass this toll.”

The Bangkok Post wrote
an editorial this week saying that it’s not too late for
justice and blasted the attitude “that it is somehow worthwhile
to kill a few innocent people, so long as most of the casualties are
drug dealers.” It called on the lead investigator of the new
panel to resist bureaucratic and police pressure so the country can
“know what happened, along with who winked at extra-judicial
steps and who authorized them.”

Human rights groups
aren’t expecting much given the current government’s
track record. Activists point out, for example, that the junta has
done nothing to open criminal investigations into three senior
military officers who were responsible by a Pattani Provincial Court
for ordering the killing of 28 men in southern Thailand’s Krue
Se Mosque in April 2004. Moreover, no action was taken after an
independent fact-finding committee found three other army officers
responsible for the deaths of 78 protesters in Narathiwat’s Tak
Bai district in 2004 who suffocated after military officers piled
them on top of each other in army trucks.

“If the
government wants to demonstrate sincerity about investigations into
human rights abuses during the last few years, it should also see
that the six army officers accused in connection with the killings in
the South the same year are prosecuted,” said Basil Fernando of
the Asian Human Rights Commission.

In fact, coup leader
Sonthi Boonyaratglin reinstated one of the officers implicated in the
Pattani case, General Pallop Pinmanee, as public relations director
of the Internal Security and Operations Command, a secretive unit
known for suppression of political opponents.

The military-dominated
political environment may make it hard for the families of drug war
victims like Somjit to ever see justice. Kraisak, for one, thinks
it’s too late.

“The life of this
government will be over very soon, in four or five months, and Mr.
Thaksin will probably storm back into power,” he said.

As for the junta’s
lack of interest in drug war deaths, Kraisak added: “The coup
was made by very conservative military people whose subordinates or
colleagues served Mr. Thaksin very well to perpetuate a horrific rule
over Thailand. It's as simple as that.”

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