Thursday, October 7, 2010

Demystifying Thailand through October October 6, 1976 Massacre

Today is the 34th anniversary of the October 6, 1976 massacre. The BBC World Service’s Witness Programme reports the significance of the massacre in Thai politics. The programme includes the interview with Thongchai Winichakul and the recorded voice of the late Puey Ungpakorn.

The massacre, which has been neglected and often forgotten in Thai society (or made to be forgotten by the Thai establishment), took place on the early morning of this day 34 years ago at Thammasat University when right-wing militia and border police attacked a peaceful gathering of student activists and protesters who had been protesting against the return of Field Marshall Thanom Kittikajorn, a military dictator, who returned to Thailand in disguise as a monk.

Thanom was a military dictator who ruled Thailand from 1958-1973. He was ousted in a popular uprising that took place three years before the massacre.

I attended today’s commemoration which was attended by close to a hundred participants. Most of them were activists who were victims and witnesses to the massacre or families of the victims. A decent numbers are student activists, trade unionists, and NGO activists attended.

To my surprise, General Chamlong Srimuang, one of the core leaders of the yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), was also present despite rumors and accusations that he played an important role in leading the brutal massacre on that date.

An Octoberists who organized the commemoration told me that Chamlong had attended the event before but had not been there for a few years after a mother of a victim questioned his presence at the event few years back.

I personally have a connection with the massacre (and 14 October uprising). I was 13 during the 22nd anniversary of the massacre in 1996 and happened to be at Thammasat University during the commemoration.

The exhibition showing the photos and videos (a portion of the video of the massacre is here) of the students being set on fire with petrol, bodies being dragged by the right-wing militia, and a lifeless body being hung from a tree in Sanam Luang and being beaten by a chair with the right-wing crowd looking extremely happy. It did not make sense to an early teen who had been taught over and over that Thais are peace lovers and that we are a Buddhist nation.

The massacre, which took the lives of at least 46 protesters and pulled the country back to years of military rule, was never highlighted in my high school social science class. The massacre which ended with the military coup d’état brought the political division to another level. Hundreds of books were banned. Student activists were hunted down, forcing many who were not even Communists to join the People’s Liberation Army of Thailand (PLAT), the armed wing of the Communist Party of Thailand. The conflict between the PLAT and the military government lasted for a decade until the amnesty programme in late 1980s.

Many of my friends who are activists or politically active agree that the exposure to the worst massacre in the Thai history (in terms of the level of brutality and savagery) has an effect in demystifying a bubble image of Thailand that Thais are peace lovers.

If the massacre is carefully studied, we can understand the mentality of the Thai elites and establishments and how they are ready to use violence against its citizens if they believe that the people’s wishes could shatter the status quo, including their readiness to justify the state’s violence by branding the opposition as being un-Thai.

As the Thai current political situation has been repeatedly compared to post-October 1976 massacre, we can just hope that the current government can make use of the tragedy and learn from it.


First appears in Siamvoices (

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Shortcomings of Khmer Rouge Tribunal

The Shortcomings of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

By POKPONG LAWANSIRIFriday, July 23, 2010

The UN-Cambodia hybrid Khmer Rouge Tribunal, known formally as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), will deliver its first verdict in the trial of Kaing Guek Eav (or “Duch”) on July 26.

Duch was the torturer-in-chief of the S-21 prison during the rule of the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians were believed to have been killed or died from hard labor and starvation during this period.

I recall from a visit to the prison-turned-genocide museum the nerve-racking effects of the mug shot photos of the thousand of victims—men, women, and children—taken before they were tortured, interrogated and murdered. Of the 12,380 people who were imprisoned at S-21, only seven survived.

The ECCC is also in the process of investigating four senior former Khmer Rouge members who are charged with crimes against humanity. They are Nuon Chea (second-in-command after Pol Pot), Ieng Sary (Khmer Rouge deputy prime minister for foreign affairs), Ieng Thirith (minister of social affairs and education), and Khieu Samphan (head-of-state).

Has the progress of the ECCC trial since it began in March 2009 been up to the expectation of the political observers? Here are some criticisms and concerns...

First, the ECCC is believed to have been suffering from political interference from Phnom Penh. Early this month, the New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) issued a report highlighting the impediment facing the ECCC after the UN prosecutor wanted to extend the investigation to include five more suspects, apart from the existing five that are being investigated by the ECCC.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s response was: “If the court wants to charge more senior Khmer Rouge cadres, the court must show the reasons to Prime Minister Hun Sen…Hun Sen only protects the peace of the nation”.

The UN-Cambodia agreement establishing the ECCC underlines the responsibility of Phnom Penh to give it full assistance.

In 2009, the court attempted to summons six-high ranking government officials to give facts in the case of Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Khieu Samphan. However, the court did not receiving much cooperation from the government after the officials did not show up to give evidence.

According to OSJI, a government spokesperson stated that: “except for individuals who volunteer to go, the government’s position is ‘no’ to this” and that foreign officials involved in the tribunal “can pack up their clothes and return home” if they are not satisfied.

With the recent decision by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appoint a UN Special Expert on the ECCC, we shall see whether the issue of political interference will be thoroughly addressed.

Second, the mandate of the ECCC has been much politicized and is limited to trying the atrocities committed during the Khmer Rouge period of April 1975 to January 1979.

In his interview with the Phnom Penh Post, Noam Chomsky, emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out that “the leading US political establishment like Henry Kissinger, a member of the late president Richard Nixon’s administration…should also be held accountable for creating the conditions that paved the way for the rise of the [Khmer Rouge]”.

While acknowledging the mass atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime, we should never forget the level of atrocities committed during the US secretive bombing of Cambodia from 1968-1973. A declassified telephone discussion between Henry Kissinger and General Alexander Haig, Nixon's deputy assistant for national security affairs, recorded that Nixon had ordered a “massive bombing campaign in Cambodia [to use] anything that flys [sic] on anything that moves”.

The map of US bombing targets released by Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program shows that more than half of the country was affected by the indiscriminate bombings. Professor Ben Kierman, director of the program, puts the casualties figure from the bombing at 150,000 deaths, while Edward Herman, a professor of Wharton School, and Noam Chomsky put the toll at 600,000 using figures provided by a Finnish Commission of Inquiry.

Based on this, we can never naively claim that US bombing led to the mass executions by the Khmer Rouge or refuted the regime's mass atrocities. But, to certain extent, the blanket bombing, which directly led to the destruction of livestock and agricultural land, could have definitely played a role in the mass starvation.

From new data released during the Clinton administration, Taylor Owen, a doctoral student at Oxford University, and Professor Kierman noted that 2,756,941 tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia.

To put the figure into perspective, just over 2 million tons of bombs were dropped by the allies during all of World War II. The bombs dropped in Cambodia represented about 184 Hiroshima atomic bombs combined, making Cambodia the most bombed nation in the world. Based on the new data, Professor Kierman also stressed that the casualties might be much higher than his earlier predicted 150,000.

Based on this, the bombing contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The number of Khmer Rouge cadres rose from a group that had an insignificant prospect ousting the US-backed Lon Nol’s regime, roughly from 1,000 in 1969 to 220,000 in 1973.

Professor Kierman observed that the Khmer Rouge “profited greatly from the US bombing [and] used the widespread devastation and massacre of civilians…for recruitment purposes”.

As the ECCC’s trials are being conducted, very little attention has been given by Southeast Asia governments to the lessons to be derived from this. The understanding of this period of history in Cambodia remains a mystery and is kept out of the school textbooks.

Many scholars argue that the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [Asean] do not want to talk much about the ECCC, fearing their own roles could be exposed.

“Asean has been largely silent on the issue of the Khmer Rouge,” said Dr. Lee Jones, a Southeast Asia expert at the Department of Politics of Queen Mary University of London. “[It] also reflects the often-ignored fact that Asean also backed the [Khmer Rouge], materially and diplomatically, once they had been overthrown by Vietnam.

“They sheltered, re-armed and helped rebuild the [Khmer Rouge], and helped them retain Cambodia's seat at the UN, so they could form a buffer against Vietnam, fueling a decade-long civil war. Just like China and the US…regional governments would prefer their grisly collaboration with the [Khmer Rouge] to be quietly forgotten rather than exposed to scrutiny."

With all these issues and concerns in mind, we shall await and see if the ECCC can improve and develop into a tribunal offering to Cambodians a genuine justice that is not based on selectivity and discrimination. And whether it can shed light on the true roles of different actors in a conflict that is still affecting one of the poorest countries in the world.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |

Thai Fact-finding Committee Falls Short

Thai Fact-finding Committee Falls Short
By POKPONG LAWANSIRIMonday, June 28, 2010

The appointment of Kanit na Nakorn, a former attorney general as the head of the independent fact-finding committee tasked by the government to investigate the two-month long violence in Bangkok, could be seen by most political observers as a good step forward towards bringing out truth surrounding the worst violence that the country has witnessed in three decades.

However, since his appointment serious questions concerning the committee's independence and its stated mission have been raised, and many independent observers have called the investigative process flawed and insincere on the part of the Democrat-led government.

The crisis in April-May 2010 led to the death of 89 people, a majority of whom were civilians, and at least 2,000 people were injured. Late last month, the Mirror Foundation, which documented cases of disappearances, reported that 39 people have gone missing after the crackdown.

Technically speaking, the work of the Khanit committee should have been conducted by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT), an agency tasked by the constitution to look into human rights violations committed by the government and non-state actors.

The NHRCT has faced much criticism for its lack of expertise in human rights and impartiality. Five members of the sub-committee that have been set up to investigate the violence surrounding the events on April 10, 2010, which resulted in the deaths of 25 people, recently resigned.

Sombat Boonngam-anong, a social activist who heads the Mirror Foundation and was one of the five former members of the sub-committee, told the writer early this month that the response so far from the NHRCT is unacceptable as it fails to criticize the use of force by the government.

“I feel that by having my name in the subcommittee which so far has just organized one meeting and has not been doing anything else will be a waste of my time. I do not want to associate myself with this agency. The NHRCT has become irrelevant. The ordinary people cannot rely on it anymore as they have to protect our own rights,” Sombat said.

For Khanit’s committee, the key question that was raised is to what extent the committee can genuinely be independent and impartial. Also, does it have a mandate to conduct its work in a professional manner akin to international standards, which includes the power to submit the findings to the court to persecute the wrongdoers.

The mandate of Khanit’s committee is unclear and arbitrary. This is not to mention that the statement by Khanit earlier this month that the committee will not seek to find out who was right or wrong, but will seek to promote forgiveness is already problematic.

The UN, under the tenure of Kofi Annan, had highlighted many times that the success in national reconciliation and post-conflict reconstruction is accompanied with truth and justice. Truth alone with impunity for the wrongdoers, in this case whether they are government officials or militant Redshirts, will not serve the country well in the long-term. Arbitrary arrest and detention of the Redshirt protesters in a non-transparent manner, as the government did, will not bring the country forward, but will create more hatred and anger against the government.

During the 14th UN Human Rights Council (HRC) session in Geneva, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom and Spain (on behalf of Spain), had pressed Thailand to establish a committee which will be vested with human rights expertise to investigate whether there had been human rights violations committed by the government and the Redshirts during the two-month long seige violence. Ambassador Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the Thai ambassador to the UN, referred to the Khanit commission during his address to the council.

However, when we look at the Khanit’s committee, it seems as if it is not vested with a rights-based approach. Khanit, a career lawyer, is not a human rights expert.

The independence of this committee has already been jeopardized given that Khanit did not come from a transparent selection process involving academics, human rights groups and the broader civil society, but was appointed by PM Abhisit Vejajiva, who is also seen as one of the key perpetrators in this conflict.

What is a good model for a successful committee?

Dr.Sriprapha Petchamesree, the representative of Thailand to the Asean Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights, in May “requested [Thailand] to allow the fact finding team composed of regional or international members to investigate and constitute the facts and human rights violations during the violence on April 10 and May repression.” Sriprapha also highlighted that any committee “appointed by the government shall not enjoy any credibility.”

As a member of the UNHRC, Thailand could show its transparency by requesting the visits of the UN independent experts known as the “special procedures” to investigate the alleged human rights violations during the past two months. The UN has requested for nine special procedures to visit the country.

If Thailand is sincere about its commitments, it could accept the requests and allow a fact-finding mission to be conducted by a team of experts, for instance a combination of the mandate holders on rights to freedom of expression, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution, and arbitrary detention. It could also seek the assistance of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on this matter.

There are also critical conditions that continue to be imposed in Thailand that could jeopardize the functioning of such a fact finding mission. Dr. Tyrell Haberkorn of the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at Australian National University, has highlighted that “the persistence of media censorship and intimidation of those deemed dissident [is a major concern]. How can there be an independent investigation in a climate in which citizens cannot freely express their views? How can there be an independent investigation while the Emergency Decree is still in force and citizens can be arbitrarily detained without the presentation of evidence?”

Abhisit’s government, if it is sincere to solve the current crisis, must effectively and efficiently addressed these concerns.

Any committee that is partisan and vested with no power will jeopardize its efforts in addressing justice for all. If the government does not want to change the trends of its methods, which have been largely criticized as being insincere, and allow a truly independent fact finding committee that is acceptable to all sides, it must know that this process of national reconciliation will be labeled a failure and could lead to more mass protests.

More importantly, if justice is not provided to the dead, Thailand will surely await a larger crisis than in April-May.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Abhisit’s violence and Thaksin’s abuse of power

Thailand’s deteriorating political situation has made the “Land of Smiles” into an object of curiosity for my friends and colleagu
es in Britain. The country has started to “trend” online.

Thailand has become a topic of discussion in the international press that is equal in popularity to the New York bomb plot and Greek fiscal crisis. A person has to only pick up a copy of The Economist before realizing that the magazine has started to publish articles on the Thai crisis every week.

The government of Thailand, dominated by the Democrat Party, has jumped into the information fray. It is slugging it out with the world media.

Thai diplomats from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur have been writing letters to newspapers that insist that the situation in Thailand is peaceful.

However, the public — especially those who have closely followed Thai politics — know that the situation is far from a settlement. Astute observers realize that Thailand is still very much in the middle of a crisis.

Some media and political observer treat the crisis as a spectator sport. They overlook the crisis’ repercussions and the ways that it has transformed Thailand.

There are many reports of body counts that are accompanied by surreal music and footage from the protest sites. However, there is not enough coverage of the government’s role in managing the crisis.

While we are reading, observing, and reporting, a culture of fear and violence in Thailand is growing.

There is an emerging concern about the government’s excessive use of authority and its abuse of power.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva ordered a series of actions against the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD, also known as the “red shirts”) after antigovernment demonstrations began in March.

These actions, which are considered unacceptable under international standards, include bloody crackdowns on the UDD on April 10 (26 protestors killed, 850 injured) and April 14 (eight killed, 101 injured).

The government has attempted to justify the crackdowns by branding protesters as “terrorists”. This label was rejected by the US.

In a press statement, the State Department said that the demonstrations “[had appeared] to be motivated by domestic politics and did not appear to be acts of […] terrorism.”

The international community has continued to express its grave concern about the violence through visits by members of Bangkok’s diplomatic corps to the protest sites.

International rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have said that the government’s excessive use of force contradicted the UN’s Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which require that police use non-violent methods to resolve conflicts before resorting to force.

The government has also used an emergency decree to close “subversive” Internet websites and radio stations in the name of “national unity”.

Last week, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology shut down at least 1,032 political websites at the order of the Center for Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES).

HRW has also raised concern about the use of the emergency decree as a pretext to summon hundreds of politicians, former government officials, academics, student activists and community radio operators to military barracks for investigation.

Last week, Suluck Lamubol, a member of the Student Federation of Thailand, and two of her friends, also student activists, were greeted at Suluck’s home by a half-dozen police officers. The police were ordered by the CRES to bring Suluck to the 11th Infantry Regiment.

The action is worrisome. Student activists in Bangkok were not threatened directly by the governments of Thaksin Shinawatra or General Surayud. The government’s treatment of protestors in the provinces or southern Thailand is a different story.

In August 2005, Abhisit railed against the emergency decree and said that it “violated the spirit of the Constitution”.

The emergency degree was vaguely written, gave excessive power to the prime minister and so would give prime ministers an opportunity to abuse power.

Abhisit had raised concern “over the fate of the country’s free press” in 2005, after the emergency decree gave the prime minister absolute authority to censor news that the government deemed a threat to national security. Ironically, now we see Abhisit has embraced use of the decree.

Abhisit’s actions have continued to distress international rights groups.

Friday, the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) warned that the prime minister could be held responsible by the International Criminal Court in Rome for ordering the April 10 crackdown.

Abhisit had promised a probe of last month’s violence, just as he promised to investigate allegations of violence against Rohingya refugees in 2009. One month later, people are still wondering if action will replace those empty words.

On May 11, 2010, David Dadge, director of Vienna-based International Press Institute, called for a full-and-transparent investigation of the killing of Hiro Muramoto, the Reuters journalist who was shot dead while covering the April 10 crackdown.

Dadge said that “the failure to identify the killer [will] create an environment” which promotes impunity.

Former senator Jon Ungpakorn previously established, a news website, to counter Thaksin’s repression of the mainstream media. The website is funded by money Jon received after accepting the Magsaysay Award in 2005 and was blocked in Thailand after April 10.

Jon, a staunch critic of Thaksin, wrote an essay for that compared the killing of the Muslim protesters at Tak Bai under Thaksin’s administration with the April 10 crackdown.

In both cases, he said, “there was absolutely no offer to take responsibility — either personally or collectively as a government — for the consequences.

“Every time Abhisit looks in the mirror, he will see the face of Thaksin,” he said.

When in the opposition, Abhisit was a critic of Thaksin’s hard-fisted style of government. He opposed Thaksin’s draconian laws, policies and abuse of power. Abhisit must now ask himself if power has transformed him into the type of person he most loathes.

This article first appeared in the Jakarta Post,’s-violence-and-thaksin’s-abuse-power.html

Monday, January 25, 2010

Human Rights Under Thai Democrat Party: Dirty shame, Mr Clean

Unlike any other political party in Thailand, the Democrat Party has a reputation of having a more liberal stance towards human rights. It was, in fact, one of the founding members of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, a network of Asian political parties known to promote social justice, democracy, and human rights.

After Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva assumed office in December 2008, he highlighted in a parliamentary speech that one priority of his government would be to promote the "respect of human rights". Known as Mr Clean for his incorruptible image, Mr Abhisit has been in power for more than a year now, and one is at a stage where one questions whether we are seeing any real progress in the advancement of human rights under Thailand's Democrat Party.

The 2010 World Human Rights Report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has drawn defensive opposition from the PM and cabinet members. They have attempted to dismiss the report as being biased and inconsistent with facts.

What the government did not take into consideration is that this report was written by one of the most internationally respected human rights NGOs in the world when it comes to its integrity and standards. Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the UN, in his speech to the UN General Assembly in June 2006 referred to HRW as: "An admirable NGO we all know [...] which played a significant part in the effort to bring about the creation of the [UN] Human Rights Council."

It is easy for any government to dismiss human rights reports from the UN and NGOs without thoroughly assessing the reports. Yet, to assess whether the human rights situation in Thailand has improved or not, the government needs to address the questions raised by HRW (and other human rights NGOs).

While the government pledges to reverse the policy of the hawkish approach to human rights under ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, there has not been any real substantial improvement. This is the key point that HRW is portraying and is being overlooked by the government.

Unresolved cases of impunity under Thaksin's regime such as the extra-judicial executions of more than 2,500 alleged drug traffickers in 2002-03 or the Tak Bai massacre in Narathiwat province which caused the deaths of 85 unarmed protesters have not been seriously addressed under the Democrat rule.

While the Mr Abhisit highlighted - in his meeting with Angkana Neelaphaijit of the Working Group on Justice for Peace in 2008 - that the situation of the unrest in southern Thailand, including the case of the forced disappearance of Mrs Angkana's husband Somchai Neelaphaijit, a respected Muslim human rights lawyer, will be his government's priority, there is not yet any development regarding Somchai's whereabouts and who is behind his disappearance. It is the same for the continuing and worsening unrest in southern Thailand.

This government has received outcries of protest from Mr Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees twice in 2009. The first was regarding the deportation of Rohingya refugees in January 2009 and the latter was about the deportation of 4,600 Hmong refugees late last month. There was no report made to the public regarding the promise made by PM Abhisit to set up an impartial investigating team to look into the alleged torture committed by the Thai navy on the Rohingya.

In January 2009, foreign media outlets reported that hundreds of Rohingya refugees were towed out to sea in boats without engines, with little or no food and water provided.

The call last month by Mr Gueterres to halt the forced return of Lao Hmong, "some of whom have international protection needs" was not answered by the Thai government.

In both cases, the UNHCR was denied access to the refugees. Sadly, Mr Abhisit, during his chairmanship of Asean, also missed the opportunity of addressing the problem of Rohingya refugees at the regional level, when Bangkok served as the Asean chair from July 2008 to December 2009.

There are still a lot of glaring issues that this government must address. These include the scores of violations of freedom of expression, including infringement on internet freedom.

These concerns have been raised not only by HRW, but other prominent human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International, Reporters without Border (RSF), Article 19, and Southeast Asian Press Alliance.

Thailand's Press Freedom Index 2009 - a yearly research published by Paris based-RSF - is currently at number 130 from the overall 175 countries, making the country "under surveillance" by the organisation. Thailand's ranking lags behind other Asean members: Indonesia at 100, Cambodia at 117, and the Philippines at 122. In 2004, Thailand's ranking was at 59.

The arbitrariness on the use of the lese majeste law in violating freedom of expression is still in question.

In March 2009, more than 150 international dignitaries, world leaders and scholars called on PM Abhisit to amend the law to prevent abuses and damage to the reputation of Thailand and the monarchy and to consider withdrawing the lese majeste charges.

These signatories, who are concerned with the deteriorating situation of civil liberties, included Professor Noam Chomsky, an American intellectual; Lord Eric Avebury, the Vice Chair of UK Parliamentary Human Rights Group; Professor Walden Bello of the University of the Philippines; Dr Caroline Lucas, member of the European Parliament; Senator Francesco Martone of Italy, and others.

These concerns reflect that there is a valid case that human rights in Thailand is deteriorating and it warrants genuine attention by the government. This shall not be something to be dismissed or sidelined.

If the Thai government wishes to run for membership of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in 2010, it must make sure that all of these concerns are adequately addressed before its application, as it is stated that all HRC candidates need to "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights".

If Thailand fails to have any concrete improvement, it would have to prepare itself to be ready to be under criticism and scrutiny at the international level, not only by Human Rights Watch, but also by hundreds of NGOs, the United Nations, and the international governments at the UN.

And Thailand must know that the criticism and scrutiny will be at a more severe and intense level.

This article first appeared in the Bangkok Post,