The army and extrajudicial killings
On March 17, Chaiyapoom Pasae, a young ethnic Lahu activist, was slain by a soldier at a checkpoint in Chiang Mai's Chiang Dao district. This followed the earlier, almost identical killing of an ethnic Lisu, Abea Sea-moo, on Feb 15 in the same district. By definition an extrajudicial killing, and subject to ongoing police and military investigations to see if the soldier was acting in self-defence, the likelihood of Chaiyapoom's death was exacerbated by three factors: Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's granting of police powers to the military, extremely high levels of racial intolerance, and the continuing use of the death penalty.
Providing the military with police powers, as Gen Prayut did via Section 44 on March 30, 2016, has unfortunately transformed soldiers primarily trained to kill to defend the state from external attack into police officers, maintaining internal law and order. The professional mentalities of the military and the police are different, with the former governed by the rules of war and codes of conduct and the latter by the rule of law, scrutinised by the judiciary. Moreover, Gen Prayut's order effectively states that deputised military acting in good faith will not face disciplinary measures, encouraging a culture of impunity.
Unfortunately, a military mindset tends to emphasise one specific end: terminating a threat. As 3rd Region Army chief Vijak Sriribunsop said, "Firing one shot at him was reasonable. If it were me, I might have put the [gun] on automatic." This mindset continues to haunt the Thai military's attempts to bring peace in the deep South. Military forces rarely function well alongside or as police forces. Furthermore, this mindset blurs the line between reactive, defensive killings and proactive killings of those deemed potential enemies of the state. The same mentality has led to approximately 10 missing Lahu and dozens missing from other ethnic minority communities, due to state-enforced disappearances.
The second complicating factor is that the average Thai is extremely racially intolerant of other ethnic communities, mainly for historical reasons, including Chinese mass migration, warfare with the Lao, Khmer, and Myanmar, World War II propaganda, and various border crises. In three questions on the World Values Survey (WVS) on what kind of people Thais would like to have as neighbours, Thais scored in the lowest 10% for people of a different race, the same for immigrants and foreign workers, and in the lowest 20% for people who speak a different language. In a fourth question, Thais score in the lowest 10% for whether they trust people of another nationality. Averaging the results, Thais are the most racially intolerant people in the WVS dataset.
With racial intolerance being built into the mindset and values of some Thais due to historical factors and increasing authoritarianism, it is unsurprising that a soldier may be more likely to proactively kill an ethnic Lahu, often seen as not being "real Thais".
The third complicating factor is Thailand's continued reliance on the death penalty. The interactions between states' maintaining the death penalty and extra-judicial killings is an ongoing area of concern. Thailand is one of many Asian countries to maintain low judicial killings with high extra-judicial killings, notably in the case of over 2,500 victims in the 2003 "war on drugs", Thai Malays in the deep South, and dozens of other ethnic minorities, especially the Lahu and Karen uplands ethnic communities.
Also, in the May 2010 crackdown on red-shirt protesters, the main victims were ethnic minorities, predominantly Thai Lao. In a country with low rule of law which maintains the death penalty, a soldier may kill more often than in a country with no death penalty.
Thailand's continuation of a mentality which encourages extrajudicial killings is now an anachronism. It is in the moral minority in maintaining the death penalty as a "deterrent". One hundred and three of the world's countries have, over time, abolished the death penalty. In a further six countries, the death penalty is retained for exceptional circumstances, such as war crimes. In another 30 countries, the death penalty is retained, but no executions have occurred within the last decade.
Thailand is therefore one of only 58 countries to retain the death penalty, the preponderance of which are majority Muslim countries.
Thailand occupies a grey area for the death penalty. Since 2009 the state has not legally executed anyone. Still, according to a 2013 survey, a minority of Thais, 41%, want to retain execution as a deterrent against murder and rape, with 8% wanting it scrapped and the rest being undecided. Thais have historically also supported extrajudicial killings, with one survey suggesting 90% supporting Thaksin's war on drugs, though 40% also feared being falsely accused and 30% feared being killed.
This reflects a deep ambivalence towards state killings common to some Asian countries, for while they symbolise state crisis, they suggest rescue from barbarism by a powerful, reassuring authoritarianism, as in the Philippines.
Given the military mindset, the racial intolerance, and the maintenance of state executions, Thailand's "war on drugs" becomes problematic as any declaration of "war" legitimises proactive killings as alternative means of execution. An extrajudicial killing in Thailand implicates the legislators and judges who maintain the death penalty, the individual soldier, the military, the police, and Gen Prayut himself. In a sense, we are all implicated, for under authoritarianism, extrajudicial killings occur in our name, without the moderating effects of democratic institutions.
John Draper is director, Social Survey Centre, College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, PhD, is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration.