2017 killing shows minorities' plight
Saturday marks the first anniversary of the death of 17-year-old Lahu youth activist Chaiyaphum Pasae, who was killed by a soldier in Chiang Mai.
We know that a bullet fired at his chest killed him. But the rest of the story has been mixed with conflicting accounts. The mystery behind his death stands as a stark reminder of how hard it is for minority and ethnic groups to obtain justice in the Land of Smiles.
On the morning of March 17 last year, a Honda Jazz driven by Chaiyaphum and his friend was stopped by soldiers at a checkpoint in Baan Rinluang village, near the Thai-Myanmar border in Chiang Dao district.
Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist, Bangkok Post.
The soldiers claimed they found 2,800 methamphetamine pills in the car. They alleged that Chaiyaphum was attempting to escape and was brandishing a hand grenade he apparently intended to throw at the soldiers. One of the soldiers fired his gun at the Lahu activist in "self-defence". Chaiyaphum died at the scene.
After the incident, the 3rd Army Region and Police Region 5 declared that Chaiyaphum was a "major drug dealer", whose bank account had records of "suspicious" transfers of money and that he managed to escape a police sting operation previously. But people close to him believe he was unlikely to have associated with any illicit drug networks. He was stateless and an activist youth who campaigned for the rights of ethnic groups by composing music and making films.
To uncover the truth about his death, one needs to find out what happened before the firing of the bullet that took his life.
Some local witnesses alleged that the soldiers punched and kicked Chaiyaphum. Many claimed he did not fight back and carried no weapons.
The 3rd Army Region chief, Wichak Siribansop, earlier expressed his personal opinion to reporters that the extrajudicial killing of the young Lahu activist was justified since soldiers had to protect themselves from the grenade allegedly carried by Chaiyaphum. He said CCTV cameras installed in the area would be able to record what happened. But up until today, the camera footage has yet to be disclosed to the public. Neither has the identity of the soldier who conducted the extrajudicial killing.
After the incident, the army delivered the camera footage in a hard disk drive to the police who proceeded with the case at Chiang Mai Provincial Court. A number of hearings have taken place since September last year. The next is scheduled for this coming Tuesday. It's likely that the case will draw to a conclusion very soon.
However, human rights lawyer Sumitchai Hattasan, who represents Chaiyaphum's family, said recently that it is unlikely that the prosecutor will refer to the CCTV camera footage as evidence. The Central Police Forensic Science Division has submitted a report on its examination of the army's hard disk drive to the prosecutor, saying there was "no footage of the time of occurrence" even though the drive was running normally.
It is unclear whether that means there was no footage of the scene of the extrajudicial killing or none on the date of the incident.
The camera footage is the crucial piece of evidence that could put an end to the conflicting accounts over the death. Without it, testimonies of soldiers and police will likely carry more weight than only one account from a local eyewitness. Other bystanders were ethnic or stateless people who would not dare to appear in court. This illustrates their fear of the authorities which has accumulated over the years.
Lahu and some other minority groups such as the Hmong have experienced discrimination and stigma as the result of the state's illicit drug suppression policy. They are often branded as drug dealers. It's true that some of them have been arrested for smuggling drugs across the northern border or for drug possession. But it doesn't mean that all of them are drug dealers.
During the war on drugs in 2003, many Lahu people including those living in Chaiyaphum's hometown were violently or badly treated by authorities. Some saw their friends and family members tortured. Some said they were accused of being drug suspects and beaten by authorities despite possessing no illicit drugs. Living in remote areas near the border, they are invisible to the public. They easily became victims of the state's violence without outsiders realising. Without Thai nationality, they become a voiceless part of the population unable to even protect themselves from injustice and unfair treatment.
Discrimination and stigma persist. More recently, a Thai newspaper, Daily News, published a front-page picture in its Jan 21 north and northeastern editions featuring drug suppression officers fully equipped with bullet proof vests, pointing guns at a Hmong woman, who was raising her hands to surrender, in Hot district of Chiang Mai during a house raid. According to the photo caption, no illegal objects were found during the raid. Why were the police pointing guns at an unarmed woman?
After Chaiyaphum's death, in May last year, people who knew him including his relative Chantana Pasae and a sister-in-law of his guardian, Nawa Ja-ue, were arrested for allegedly selling drugs and providing methamphetamine pills to Chaiyaphum respectively. Police found no drugs during the raids on their houses. But with "solid evidence", they have been in jail ever since.
It can't be concluded if Chaiyaphum was a drug dealer, the carrier of the hand grenade or just an innocent -- especially when potential evidence is missing while eyewitnesses are too fearful to give their accounts.
What we can conclude is that it is easy to pick on the little people -- just because their voices are not loud enough or they don't have Thai citizenship.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.