Govt must act to shield protesters

Govt must act to shield protesters

After a week in which the wife of missing Karen activist Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen urged public prosecutors to reverse their decision not to bring murder charges against four park officials over her husband's death and student activists ramped up their protests against the government which include demands for the protection of those who dare to publicly voice their opposition to the powers that be, today, somewhat appropriately, marks the United Nations' International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

Since 1980, the UN has recorded at least 82 cases of enforced disappearances in Thailand, but experts say the number is under-reported and could be in the hundreds, as families of missing activists pleaded during the week for a crucial law change that would finally, formally criminalise the practice in the Kingdom.

In addition to the decision in January by the Office of the Attorney-General to let those accused of the grisly murder of Billy walk free despite the Department of Special Investigations claiming to have sufficient evidence to pursue the charges, there was also the widely-reported case in June of Thai satirist Wanchalearm Satsaksit who was allegedly kidnapped by a group of armed men in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. He hasn't been heard from since and, so far, the Thai government appears to have taken little meaningful action to establish either his whereabouts or who the perpetrators of this reported kidnapping may be.

These cases are high-profile examples of the current regime failing in what should be an obligation to investigate and prosecute in instances where state officials stand accused of silencing critics by use of kidnap and, ultimately, murder. The public also well remembers the disappearance of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaichit in 2004, where state authorities implicated in the crime were spared by this culture of impunity. Consequently, condemnation has become ever louder over the slowness of the state to introduce a law criminalising torture and enforced disappearances after more than a decade of delay.

For too long an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality, coupled with a flaw-ridden judicial system, has allowed those in power in Thailand to act with a chillingly executive level of authority when it comes to tackling dissenting voices then simply wait for any uproar to die down by deploying a never-ending succession of never-ending probes. This is not something that has gone unnoticed among the younger generation -- which is often the pool from which such daringly critical figures emerge.

There can no longer be any excuse for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha not to expedite steps to introduce an impartial system of checks and balances and the necessary legal framework to ensure high-profile cases are dealt with fairly and, perhaps even more importantly, promptly, regardless of who has disappeared or is alleged to have facilitated it. It was he, after all, who promised to sweep clean the dirty floor of Thai politics as part of the justification for the military coup of 2014.

The prime minister could make a meaningful start by securing support in the coalition to pass the Prevention and Suppression of the Torture and Enforced Disappearances Bill, sponsored by 12 civil society groups and examined by a subcommittee on justice administration reform.

The bill, which is consistent with the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and covers steps for preventing and suppressing the crimes, and compensating victims, is now pending examination and approval by parliament. The law must also maintain the fundamental principle that cases of enforced disappearances should have no statute of limitations.

Gen Prayut should give a commitment that this crucial law will be passed in his tenure, or even better as soon as possible, to prevent the bill from going back to square one yet again.

If he fails to do so, allegations that the state is wilfully lingering over a bill many believe is an inconvenience to a regime that would prefer to see no evil and hear no evil wherever possible will only return to the fore.

Back to the rallies. The student protesters are brave for taking a stand when they have seen what has happened to peers who took similarly anti-establishment stances, whether over Karen land rights issues as with Billy or for political commentary that ruffled feathers in the case of Wanchalearm.

One can only hope that weight of numbers and the current level of connectedness among these groups will protect individual voices from being picked off and "disappeared" one by one as in times gone by.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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