The Bangkok Massacres: A Call for Accountability
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For four years, the people of Thailand have been the victims of a systematic and unrelenting assault on their most fundamental right — the right to self-determination through genuine elections based on the will of the people. The assault against democracy was launched with the planning and execution of a military coup d’état in 2006. In collaboration with members of the Privy Council, Thai military generals overthrew the popularly elected, democratic government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose Thai Rak Thai party had won three consecutive national elections in 2001, 2005 and 2006. The 2006 military coup marked the beginning of an attempt to restore the hegemony of Thailand’s old moneyed elites, military generals, high-ranking civil servants, and royal advisors (the “Establishment”) through the annihilation of an electoral force that had come to present a major, historical challenge to their power. The regime put in place by the coup hijacked the institutions of government, dissolved Thai Rak Thai and banned its leaders from political participation for five years.
When the successor to Thai Rak Thai managed to win the next national election in late 2007, an ad hoc court consisting of judges hand-picked by the coup-makers dissolved that party as well, allowing Abhisit Vejjajiva’s rise to the Prime Minister’s office. Abhisit’s administration, however, has since been forced to impose an array of repressive measures to maintain its illegitimate grip and quash the democratic movement that sprung up as a reaction to the 2006 military coup as well as the 2008 “judicial coups.” Among other things, the government blocked some 50,000 web sites, shut down the opposition’s satellite television station, and incarcerated a record number of people under Thailand’s infamous lèse-majesté legislation and the equally draconian Computer Crimes Act. Confronted with organized mass demonstrations that challenged its authority, the government called in the armed forces and suspended constitutional freedoms by invoking the Internal Security Act and a still more onerous Emergency Decree. Since April 7, 2010, the country’s new military junta — the Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (“CRES”) — rules without any form of accountability, under a purported “state of emergency” that was declared improperly, implemented disproportionately, and continued indefinitely with the purpose of silencing any form of opposition to the unelected regime. Once again, the Establishment could not deny the Thai people’s demand for self-determination without turning to military dictatorship.
In March 2010, massive anti-government protests were organized in Bangkok by the “Red Shirts” of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). The Red Shirt rally was sixty-six days old on May 19, 2010, when armored vehicles rolled over makeshift barricades surrounding Bangkok’s Rachaprasong intersection and penetrated the Red Shirts’ encampment. Weeks earlier, on April 10, 2010, units had carried out a failed attempt to disperse a Red Shirt gathering at the Phan Fa Bridge, resulting in the death of twenty-seven people. At least fifty-five more people died in the dispersal of the Ratchaprasong rally between May 13 and May 19. By the time the site of the demonstrations was cleared, several major commercial buildings stood smoldering, more than eighty people lay dead, and over fifty alleged UDD leaders faced possible death sentences on “terrorism” charges. Hundreds of other protesters remain detained, for violating the Internal Security Act and the Emergency Decree, which the Thai authorities wield in an effort to criminalize legitimate political protest.
Thailand has obligations under International Law, including treaty obligations under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to investigate all serious human rights violations during the Red Shirts demonstrations and, if applicable, to prosecute members of the military and its civilian chain of command for crimes such as the summary and arbitrary executions of more than eighty civilians in Bangkok in April-May 2010. The facts strongly suggest violations of International Law through a disproportionate use of force by the Thai military, prolonged arbitrary detention and disappearances, and a repressive system of political persecution that denies freedom of political participation and expression to its citizens, including the Red Shirts. There is ample evidence of serious human rights abuses to trigger an independent and impartial investigation into the facts, so that those who are guilty of international crimes may be brought to justice.
Additionally, the use of military force against the Red Shirts in April-May 2010 is the kind of systematic or widespread attack on civilian populations that might rise to the level of crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court in The Hague. While Thailand has not acceded formally to the Rome Statute, these kinds of attacks might warrant consideration for a referral to the International Criminal Court if they were carried out knowingly under a policy to acquiesce in or encourage unnecessary loss of life, or if they are designed to target a specific political group. There is substantial evidence that the four-year campaign of attacks against the Red Shirts is being carried out under a policy approved by the Abhisit government, and that the recent Red Shirt massacres are only the latest manifestation of that policy.
Lastly, the Thai government’s purported investigation into the Red Shirt massacres in April-May 2010 promises to be neither independent nor objective, as required by International Law. While Thailand may be guilty of additional violations of the ICCPR and of customary international law for its failures to ensure a fair and complete investigation into the massacre, international pressure is necessary to ensure its compliance and pre-empt the government’s ongoing attempts to whitewash the incidents.
There is no dispute that Thailand must move beyond violence and work toward reconciliation. Reconciliation, however, necessarily begins with the restoration of the Thai people’s fundamental right to self-governance; moreover, it requires full accountability for serious human rights violations committed in the attempt to repress that right. International Law mandates nothing less.