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Thai army should be held accountable for 2010 crackdown on street protests

An anti-government
An anti-government "'red shirt"' protester carries his sleeping son through the crowd during a rally in Bangkok, 19 September 2010

REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

UPDATE from Human Rights Watch: Thailand: No Amnesty for Rights Abusers (5 August 2013)

The Thai government should revoke a decision to shield military personnel from criminal prosecution for the 2010 political bloodshed, Human Rights Watch said on May 7, 2013. A general amnesty proposed by the ruling party that would include those responsible for serious human rights abuses should be rejected.

On May 1, the director-general of the Justice Ministry's Department of Special Investigation (DSI), Tarit Pengdith, announced that military personnel would not be held responsible for casualties during the government's crackdown on street protests in 2010, despite overwhelming evidence that soldiers shot civilians.

"The Thai government's decision not to prosecute military personnel for the 2010 violence signals that there is one law for the army and another for everyone else," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This amounts to a government policy of shielding - instead of prosecuting - soldiers who killed civilians on the streets and commanders who gave the orders."

The Justice Ministry's announcement follows a government policy stated repeatedly by Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, who is in charge of justice and law enforcement affairs, that soldiers and their commanders would be treated as witnesses to these incidents rather than defendants, and would be fully protected from criminal prosecution because they were acting under orders from the previous government.

At least 98 people lost their lives and more than 2,000 were injured during the confrontations between the opposition United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as "Red Shirts," and the government of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, according to the DSI. Arson attacks in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand caused billions in damage.

Forensic evidence and witness accounts detailed in a May 2011 Human Rights Watch report, "Descent into Chaos: Thailand's 2010 Red Shirt Protests and the Government Crackdown," showed that high numbers of casualties among protesters, volunteer medics, reporters, photographers, and bystanders occurred in the areas designated as "live fire zones" by the government-appointed Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES). Most deaths and injuries resulted from excessive and unnecessary lethal force by the Thai army and other security forces, Human Rights Watch said.

The CRES, established by Abhisit and chaired by then Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, approved the use of live ammunition to contain and disperse the protests, but failed to take sufficient measures to monitor and control those military operations in line with law enforcement standards. A document signed by Suthep on April 18, 2010, later examined by Human Rights Watch, broadly authorized the deployment of sharpshooters and snipers to "protect security forces and the public."

However, not a single soldier or official has been held accountable for the 2010 violence, Human Rights Watch said. The DSI announced in September 2012 that the military was responsible for 36 deaths. So far, only nine cases have been submitted to the Criminal Court for post-mortem inquests, and the court found that five victims were shot dead by soldiers acting under operational guidelines set out by the CRES.

The DSI and police investigations and inquest rulings show that insufficient efforts have been made to identify the soldiers and commanding officers responsible for the shootings, Human Rights Watch said. After receiving the inquest results, the DSI decided to charge only Abhisit and Suthep for killings. Based on the theory of command responsibility, which allows the prosecution of superiors for the actions of their subordinates, each has been charged with premeditated murder.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the politicization of decisions about prosecutions for human rights abuses. In an interview, Tarit reportedly said that, "DSI, as a government agency, has to follow policy of the government. Now the government prioritizes 'reconciliation,' DSI action will therefore reflect that policy."

"It is ludicrous for the Department of Special Investigation to say it has to follow the government's policy on reconciliation, which clearly compromises its law enforcement duties," said Adams.

Human Rights Watch has also documented that some elements of the UDD, including armed "Black Shirt" militants, were responsible for deadly attacks on soldiers, police, and civilians. Some UDD leaders incited violence with inflammatory speeches to demonstrators, urging their supporters to carry out riots, arson attacks, and looting.

The UDD was supported by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister Yingluck Shinawatra is the current prime minister. However, the UDD leadership, including those now holding positions in the government and the parliament, have dismissed these findings. Some have asserted there were no armed elements within the UDD, despite incidents of "Black Shirts" and some UDD protesters committing violence with weapons being captured on video and in photos.

"Prime Minister Yingluck should be reminded that she came to power promising justice to the victims of political violence," Adams said. "Any attempt by the government to manipulate justice by shielding the army or others will break her promise to the victims and the Thai people."

Army soldiers and riot police fire towards anti-government
Army soldiers and riot police fire towards anti-government "red shirt" protesters who planned a road block along a highway in the outskirts of Bangkok, 28 April 2010

REUTERS/Adrees Latif


For decades in Thailand, the concept of "reconciliation" has been promoted not to bring communities together, but to protect powerful politicians and military leaders from being held accountable for wrongdoing. In the name of "reconciliation" there were no independent investigations into the crackdowns on students and pro-democracy protesters in 1973 and 1976, which led to the deaths of well over 100 people. The complete findings of a government inquiry into the bloody 1992 repression of protesters calling for an end to military rule have never been released. In each of these cases, in the name of "reconciliation," amnesty was given to those responsible for abuses.

The push for a general amnesty through the passage of a National Reconciliation Bill proposed by the ruling Pheu Thai Party and its coalition partners may become a convenient device for denying justice to victims of human rights abuses related to political violence, Human Rights Watch said.

The independent Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) did not recommend an amnesty in its September 2012 report and stated that it should not be the ultimate objective of reconciliation. It concluded that the principle of justice must be taken into account to address the needs of victims and affected persons, accountability of perpetrators, and encouragement that perpetrators provide reparations and publicly take responsibility for their actions.

"The proposed amnesty, the decision not to prosecute soldiers, and the denial of 'Black Shirt' crimes, suggests a backroom deal to absolve almost everyone from legal responsibility for the violence in 2010," said Adams. "The victims of abuses deserve justice and accountability, not another round of political deals that allow those with power and influence to get away with serious crimes."

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