The Long Wait for Justice in Thailand

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.”