On the ‘right’ side of crime and impunity
Crime and punishment, or crime and impunity? For most people, the former. For the powerful, the well connected, for those on the right side of history, maybe the latter.
Bullets to the heads and no one fired them: Ghost bullets that killed as if by phantom killers. Blood on the street but there was never blood on anybody’s hands, not in 2010 at Ratchaprasong, obviously, but neither in 2008 at Government House, nor in 2004 in Tak Bai and Krue Se, nor in 1992, 1976, 1973 at Sanam Luang and Ratchadamnoen, and so on. The story of Thailand in the last half-a-century is a story of proven deaths and unproven crimes. Unnatural deaths, natural crimes. When cancer kills you know it’s cancer. When a lump of lead pierces your flesh and stops your heart, pray they find out who pulled the trigger.
Usually, historically, naturally, they can’t.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court, upholding the decisions of the criminal lower courts, dismissed the case against former PM Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban for the crackdown on red-shirt protesters in 2010 that left more than 90 people dead. In the judicial particulars, this wasn’t even about who gave the orders or who pulled the trigger, or why live rounds were used. It was about whether the court had the jurisdiction to try the case — and it hadn’t. So now the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) will have to file a new case with the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions instead of the Criminal Court.
After the ruling Mr Suthep, who orchestrated his own street protests that preceded the 2014 coup, said he and Mr Abhisit had to face the charges but that ultimately the operation “was considered a success”. Mr Suthep said he ordered authorities to use real bullets to protect the lives of others who were at risk of being attacked by the demonstrators.
“Life firing zone” — remember that infamous malaprop on the sign put up by the military? First-class irony: Life, what life, why is it in the same phrase as “firing”? After the ruling, relatives of the victims whose lives were lost gathered at Ratchaprasong for a memorial prayer, including the mother of the volunteer nurse Kamonked Akkahad who was among those shot dead at the scene. She said she respected the court’s ruling, but she’d keep looking for justice.
Earlier on Aug 2, the Supreme Court acquitted former PM Somchai Wongsawat and three other defendants for abuse of authority in the fatal dispersal of the yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy protesters in 2008, which left two dead and hundreds injured. Also acquitted were deputy prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and then-national police chief Pol Gen Patcharawat Wongsuwon. At least no live bullets here, only tear gas. And while we have to be careful about false equivalence — to equate different incidents and ignore their nuances and degree of violence — it’s yet another familiar narrative of dead civilians on the street where no one, I mean no one, has to take any responsibility.
And don’t get me started on the deep South. Another former PM, Thaksin Shinawatra, perhaps between his sips of Romanee Conti, tweeted a philosophical warning about the cruelty and injustice perpetrated in the name of the law. Another first-class irony: The Tak Bai and Krue Se deaths happened under his watch, those deaths brashly dismissed as Ramadan fatigue as men were piled up like sardines on the backs of military trucks. Those deaths at the mosque where a siege led by Gen Panlop Pinmaee — later appointed as adviser to former premier Yingluck Shinawatra — condemned dozens of young men to their terrible ends. Those deaths that, 13 years later, still haven’t been accounted for: No one has been blamed or discharged, let alone tried in court. There wasn’t even the stupid sign warning about live bullets, because every bullet used in the South is live, it’s a given, more alive than the people, and we can continue to be sure of that now the Ministry of Defence has been allocated a budget next year even bigger than that of the Education Ministry.
The crime is always remembered, even when the punishment is nowhere in sight.
To move on, we can’t sweep the past under the rug, where it will rot. To move on and reconcile, we can’t just punish Thoughtcrime — that’s why Jatupat Boonpattararaksa is in jail, so are many others — and leave more serious crime to the wind of oblivion or the holes in judicial technicality. But that’s been the case for so long. They say history will be the judge, but in Thailand the court of history is adjourned, maybe forever.
Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post columnist
Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.