Tale of activist's 'stupidity' hard to swallow

Tale of activist's 'stupidity' hard to swallow

Chaiyapoom Pasae must have been really stupid. He was a local Lahu boy. He knew where the military had set up their semi-permanent checkpoint. He had with him 2,800 tablets of ya ba, a knife and a hand grenade -- all stuff that could put him in jail.

Yet he allowed himself to be driven through the checkpoint and expected to get away with it.

Then, when the drugs were found, he attempted to flee by knifing a soldier in plain view of other soldiers armed with deadly war weapons.

When the attempt failed, he ran and somehow had the presence of mind to grab a hand grenade from his car. From a 200-metre distance he turned to throw the grenade at a pursuing soldier who was aiming a rifle at him.

Wasant Techawongtham is former News Editor, Bangkok Post.

How stupid! Who did he think he was? An action movie hero?

For his stupidity, he deserved to be shot. And that's what happened. When the soldier opened fire -- in self-defence, authorities say -- the bullet went through his left arm and into his body, killing him, the grenade falling by his side.

Or maybe he wasn't so stupid but was just unlucky to run into a group of overly aggressive soldiers.

According to local witnesses, he was ordered to get out of the car to be searched. It was not clear whether he refused or was too slow to respond, but he was dragged out of the car and beaten up. As he was lying on the ground, a soldier put a booted foot on his face and continued beating him.

At the time, two shots were heard. After struggling free, Chaiyapoom got up and ran away. That was when the third and fatal shot was fired.

Up to this point, it isn't clear which version of the incident is the truth.

Extra-judicial killings of drug suspects are not unheard of. During the Thaksin Shinawatra administration, thousands lost their lives in his anti-drug war.

But this is the first time that such an act has generated widespread public doubts. That's because the official version is diametrically opposed to the image with which people around Chaiyapoom came to associate him.

As widely reported in the media, Chaiyapoom had engaged in civic activities ever since he was a nine-year-old boy. Those activities focused on raising awareness of the scourge of drugs, promoting educational opportunities for youths, and promoting the rights of ethnic Thais.

His songwriting and film-making skills in the promotion of his causes had been recognised and awarded.

Many questions remain unanswered and ensuing public doubts have raised such a ruckus that authorities have been forced to launch an official investigation.

But initial reactions from officials have put the results of any "official" investigation in doubt. Both Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha and army spokesman Winthai Suvaree have already said the accused soldier was acting in self-defence.

Police also revealed they have evidence linking the Lahu youth to suspicious drug activities.

Meanwhile, some people have cautioned others not to rush to judgement that it was a case of the use of excessive force.

It may be sound advice but one that is hard to swallow. Increasingly, public perception of the military is that of a force that stays above the law.

There have been many instances where soldiers were accused -- and proven in some cases -- of excessive use of deadly force but have eluded legal action.

It is widely believed that the armed and law enforcement forces have a cultural tendency to protect their own members. But as they do so, more and more cases have emerged to shine a negative light on them.

Another extra-judicial killing in the same vicinity as Chaiyapoom was killed has gone unnoticed and unreported until now.

Just a month earlier, a 33-year-old Lahu man, suspected of drug dealing, was gunned down by soldiers from the same unit involved in Chaiyapoom's death. At the scene of his death, he was photographed holding a hand grenade of a similar type that was found by Chaiyapoom's side.

There are just too many coincidences.

Increasingly, too, Thailand's human rights record has come under global scrutiny. Just a few days before Chaiyapoom's killing, a Thai delegation had to defend Thailand's record before the UN Human Rights Council.

The delegation painted a glowing picture of Thailand's human rights performance. But their own performance was less than convincing in the face of what has ensued since the 2014 military coup.

As public attention has been focused on Chaiyapoom's death, two other cases came to the court almost unnoticed.

"Pai Dao Din" or Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, who was in custody for sharing a BBC article on Facebook considered to breach lese majeste laws, appeared before the court in Khon Kaen for a pre-trial hearing.

He has been repeatedly denied bail by the court. His case is notable for the fact that the long arm of the law never reached out to 2,800 others who shared the same article.

Outside the court's compound, a group of students staged a rally calling for Pai to be given bail. Four of them were subsequently charged with contempt of court.

Meanwhile, in Ratchaburi two activists and a journalist stood before the court. The activists tried to tell the court why the campaign to say no to the constitutional referendum should not be considered a crime.

But the journalist was not an activist. He was charged with the same "crime" because he took a ride with the activists while they were on their campaign trail.

The regime's attempts to put a gag on its citizens have become so surreal it's hard to believe we are living in the 21st Century. But its greatest threat is to the public's trust in the entire justice system.

Because the military has claimed absolute state power, the police and public prosecutors must be submissive to the military's will.

It's hard to imagine the courts falling coyly into line as well. But recent events may force a rethink on the part of those who see the courts as beyond reproach.

The stakes in Chaiyapoom's case have been raised. It's no longer a local story. It has become global. And the credibility of the justice system depends on it.

Wasant Techawongtham

Freelance Reporter

Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.

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