Thai justice system overhaul overdue

Thai justice system overhaul overdue

Representatives of law students nationwide yesterday file a petition with the National Anti-Corruption Commission over the decision by prosecutors to drop hit-and-run causing death charges against Red Bull scion Vorayuth Yoovidhya. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
Representatives of law students nationwide yesterday file a petition with the National Anti-Corruption Commission over the decision by prosecutors to drop hit-and-run causing death charges against Red Bull scion Vorayuth Yoovidhya. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

Thailand's current talk of the country is undoubtedly the scandal centring on Red Bull scion Vorayuth "Boss" Yoovidhya for the 2012 hit-and-run resulting in the gruesome death of a policeman on a motorcycle.

As is now infamously known, public prosecutors have dropped all charges against Mr Vorayuth, while the police posed no objections. In most other countries, when a cop is killed, the perpetrator is in huge trouble. In Thailand, when a cop is killed, he can somehow end up being a co-defendant for negligence along with his killer.

The political fallout from this disgraceful and detestable case will be far-reaching. This blatant crime, the impunity and the timing of its revelation will further fuel the flames of discontent among Thailand's younger generation and beyond who have rallied against institutionalised and systemic injustice. While rich and powerful families like Mr Vorayuth's can get away with this and that and have their way in business and the economy, others have faced forced disappearances, harassment and intimidation.

To be sure, Mr Vorayuth's case has had many twists and turns. On the night the crime took place, tests showed that Mr Vorayuth was speeding, with excess alcohol and drug substances in his bodily system. After hitting the hapless policeman who was on motorcycle duty, he tried to get one of his family underlings to substitute for him. When that did not work, he hid from public view, repeatedly refusing police summonses to hear charges. Then he absconded, skipping town to live abroad.

Big conglomerate families naturally won't let one of their scions go down without using all the resources at their disposal to fight back. Months turned into years. Other scandals and headlines intervened. The police never seriously tried to get him extradited to face charges in Thailand. The Thai people did not forget this obnoxious crime but just had other things to think about.

When it was revealed that all charges had been dropped, the credit went to an international news organisation. Thailand's media are understandably headline-driven but there has been a steep decline in the country's investigative journalism. Muckraking, doing homework and staying with key cases has become an endangered job in favour of quick and sensational reporting, often shallow and superficial. This time, the Thai media really took their eyes off one of the most barefaced crime stories in Thailand.

Thailand's police force also deserves to be pilloried for not supporting one of their own. It is demoralising for rank-and-file policemen to see that one of them could be hit and killed without accountability.

In other countries, a scandal like this which has outraged the nation would result in either the police chief's resignation or his termination.

Public prosecutors, who are responsible for pressing the Vorayuth case but instead exonerated him, have lost the little that is left of public faith in the justice system. Instead of siding with the victim to maintain public trust and ensure justice, prosecutors have evidently favoured the perpetrator.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has now waded in because of the sudden and unexpected public anger. A clutch of committees in the bureaucracy and parliament has been formed in short order but these are unlikely to come up with much. When prosecutors dropped the charges and the police went along, the case was closed. Mr Vorayuth could return, lie low, change his name, and go on living in Thailand -- just like that.

Any outcome to the contrary would require more twists and manipulations of the law. Perhaps some new legal manoeuvre could still put Mr Vorayuth behind bars but it would be surprising. In any case, many people have come to the conclusion that Thai law is not about justice but about power and the wealth that underpins it.

Yet there is more to it than the Vorayuth infamy. His case belonged in the criminal justice system, involving police, public prosecutors and judges. This system itself is now on trial in the court of public opinion.

Other courts that are political and politicised, such as the Constitutional Court, have also lost public trust. Over the past two decades, the Constitutional Court has taken politically decisive verdicts that went against one side and favoured the other in Thailand's deep divide and polarised society. This bench has deliberately set political directions. It's partly the reason why Thailand is in the prolonged mess it finds itself in the early 2020s. The whole judiciary, in short, does not inspire confidence among the Thai people.

Reforming and revamping it has unsurprisingly become a plank among the demands of Thailand's youth movement for political change. When the rot is so entrenched, it takes new, fresh and younger faces and minds to clean up what has gone wrong among old rulers in this otherwise great country. Doing so is easier said than done. It will take time, patience and compromise but letting a rotten justice system endure is not an option. When injustice reigns so blatantly, there can be no peace in the land.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University

An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.


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