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    Southeast Asia
     Oct 13, 2006
The democratic way to prosecute Thaksin

By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - Thailand's new military-appointed interim government finds itself on the horns of a crucial dilemma: how best to charge and prosecute ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a way that would lend democratic legitimacy to its September 19 putsch.

Thailand's coupmakers first justified their takeover on the grounds that Thaksin's rule was divisive, abusive and corrupt - not to

mention insulting to the crown. So far, military-appointed investigative commissions have concentrated their energies on financial irregularities and corruption allegations, including his family's hot-button US$1.9 billion Shin Corp-Temasek Holdings transaction.

Yet thorough investigations into the ousted premier's abysmal human-rights record would arguably send an even stronger signal to both the international community and the Thai public that the military's political intervention was just and necessary to return Thailand toward a rule-of-law-based society after five years of misrule under Thaksin.

As skepticism predictably entrenches against Thailand's new military rulers, nothing arguably would contribute more toward genuine national reconciliation and allay doubts about their own democratic intentions and credentials than a vigorous investigation and follow-up prosecution of Thaksin's many rights-based abuses. And investigators clearly wouldn't have to look very far.

Thaksin's "war on drugs" campaign in 2003 resulted in the extrajudicial killing of more than 2,500 people. Although local and international media reported and recorded hundreds of cases of police officials shooting and killing unarmed civilians - always in self-defense according to official accounts - to date not one Thai official has been prosecuted or even reprimanded for his or her role in the unprecedented orgy of violence.

Thaksin's heavy-handed counterinsurgency policies in Thailand's conflict-ridden south resemble an Augusto Pinochet-style dirty war. Rights groups say hundreds of Thai Muslims have gone missing since the conflict kicked up in 2004, a charge Thaksin has consistently contested. Yet there are many examples of security forces implementing his policies using arbitrary and often excessive force, including the April 2004 siege on the Krue Se Mosque, the point-blank shooting in the back of the heads of 19 restrained and handcuffed young Muslims at Saba Yoi, and the October 2004 death by suffocation of at least 78 Muslim civilians at Tak Bai.

There are plenty of other cases where individual liberties, then protected by the progressive 1997 constitution, were apparently smothered without legal recourse by Thaksin's abuse of state power. For instance, Thaksin has publicly admitted to state complicity in the still-unresolved disappearance case of Muslim human-rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, who was abducted by Thai intelligence officials in Bangkok in an apparent effort to suppress his submitting evidence of police torture of five detained Muslim men he was representing. That damning evidence, it was later revealed, included medical proof of security forces' using electric-shock treatment on one of the bound suspects' testicles.

Then there is the mysterious unresolved shooting death of Kornthep Wiriya, a former customs employee of Shin Satellite, the publicly listed telecommunication concern established by Thaksin and until last January majority-owned by his family. Kornthep apparently made the mistake of agreeing to serve as a prosecution witness in a politically charged 100 million baht (US$2.6 million) tax-evasion case against the company. He was ambushed and shot in the head by unidentified assailants while riding his motorcycle before he could testify in court.

Subverting justice
All of these cases are on file at Thailand's National Human Rights Commission and have been reported in either the local or international media. Because Thaksin, who ironically holds a PhD in criminal justice, exerted his extraordinary political power to subvert Thailand's judicial system, none of these have been properly investigated, and only the case involving the disappearance of Muslim lawyer Somchai was heard in court. In that case, five secret-police officials were given a slap on the wrist rather than prison sentences for their admitted role in the lawyer's abduction.

The underlying problem in resurrecting and pursuing these cases of apparent abuse is that too many of the crimes hit too close to home for Thailand's new military-appointed government and would badly undermine ongoing efforts to portray the military as the country's democratic guardian of last resort. Because security forces, both military and police, are no doubt complicit in many of the aforementioned crimes, there are doubts among human-rights advocates that Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a former army general, has the political will to implicate its own.

Yet if these cases are pursued properly and not as a political witch-hunt, Surayud has a historic opportunity to catapult Thailand on to a higher democratic plane while also seeing through the next crucial phase of the military-reform program he initiated in 1998 but which was truncated when Thaksin took the premiership in 2001.

The international community is still wholly uncertain about which Thai military has seized power - the abusive coupmakers of old or a new generation of more democratic-minded generals. Past Thai-style exercises in national reconciliation after political crises have universally included blanket clemencies for those complicit in state-sponsored violence and political killings.

The Thai military's counter-communism campaign and its attendant crimes against members of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) in the 1970s and 1980s have never been properly investigated, according to historians and human-rights advocates. Subsequent academic research has uncovered that rogue military officials often covered their abusive tracks by immolating captured communists in oil drums - a Thai twist on the burning-your-enemy practice known as "necklacing".

Nor were any senior Thai officials brought to book for their role in cracking down on unarmed pro-democracy protesters in 1973 and 1976 - indeed, some even held high political office under Thaksin's rule. The same is true for military officials involved with the killing of scores, if not hundreds, of pro-democracy demonstrators on the streets of Bangkok in 1992 - an episode in which Surayud was in charge of crack troops. And, although it was not directly a human-rights abuse, nobody was convicted for the widespread financial fraud in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis.

Well-worn tradition
Impunity for high crimes, be they financial, official or human-rights related, is a well-worn Thai tradition of behind-the-scenes elite settlements. Obviously, with Thaksin's enormous financial clout, there is a high risk that a similar settlement is reached that allows him to return to Thailand a free man. But if Thai democracy must truly take one step backward to take two steps ahead, then that shouldn't be the case.

Past exercises in national reconciliation attended by blanket clemencies, rather than moving Thailand's democracy toward a more rules-based society, have over time left the door open for future state-sponsored abuses. And that tradition arguably has failed to achieve long-lasting reconciliation. Many former student leaders and CPT members in Thaksin's political camp were instrumental in implementing policies aimed at undermining the traditional elites that opened fire on them in the 1970s.

Unpunished state-sponsored abuses against southern Thai Muslims in the 1960s and 1970s are still a cause celebre for a new generation of insurgent fighters, who after a century within the Thai state still feel like second-class citizens. One Muslim Thai senator once told me that he had information that his father was captured by Thai security officials and dumped into the ocean from a helicopter.

Any hints of a Thaksin whitewash will enrage the country's strong progressive movement, which is already peeved about the possibility that they will be under-represented during a new constitution-drafting process. Blanket clemencies will only ensure that Thailand stays on its same tortuous course vacillating between abusive democracy and military interventions.

Yet there are early indications that that is exactly what the country's military leaders have in mind. The coupmakers notably included a blanket clemency for themselves in the interim constitution they promulgated last weekend. And because intra-military and intra-police relations are still dangerously divided between pro- and anti-Thaksin camps, it seems unlikely that prosecuting wayward Thaksin loyalists among the security forces is what Surayud's government has in mind when it speaks of national reconciliation.

Thaksin famously snipped that "the UN is not my father" after a United Nations human-rights official raised questions about official complicity in his controversial "war on drugs" campaign. It was a comment that grossly underscored the tough-talking former premier's utter disdain for protecting basic human rights. It's the duty of Thailand's new leadership to respond by investigating and prosecuting Thaksin for his government's many human-rights abuses and, in doing so, putting all future Thai politicians on notice that, besides Thailand's respected monarch, the rule of law is indeed their father.

Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia editor.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

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