Remembering Bloody May 1992

Remembering Bloody May 1992

Soldiers arrest a demonstrator at the height of Black May uprising on May 19, 1992. The protests were staged against post-coup prime minister Suchinda Kraprayoon, who was not elected to the position. (Bangkok Post file photo)
Soldiers arrest a demonstrator at the height of Black May uprising on May 19, 1992. The protests were staged against post-coup prime minister Suchinda Kraprayoon, who was not elected to the position. (Bangkok Post file photo)

This month commemorates the 30-year anniversary of the Bloody May events in 1992 that witnessed extensive violence against street demonstrators and the subsequent fall of the military-linked government that had come to power due to the 1991 coup. What then are some of the lessons to remember, resonating from the past to the present and the future?

The 1991 coup was instigated by a group of military leaders to overturn the elected civilian government on the basis of alleged corruption. It also annulled the constitution, but the junta which came to power was willing to put in place a civilian leader as prime minister in the interim. However, the subsequent revised constitution opened the door to a controlled Senate and an unelected prime minister. Although the key coup leader pledged not to become an unelected prime minister, this pledge was broken when he was appointed as premier in April 1992. This led to massive demonstrations against his tenure, thus advocating his ouster, and there were violent confrontations between the military-cum-police and civilians in the third week of May. About 50 civilians were killed and several hundred were injured, in addition to many enforced disappearances (their whereabouts remain unknown). Due to intervention from the top, the general resigned from the premiership and Thailand returned to civilian rule followed by elections. This paved the way for the catalytic 16th Constitution in 1997, which is now regarded as the most people-based and democratic of its kind.

There remain a range of key concerns. Firstly, there is the issue of self-amnesty. Before the resignation of that military prime minister, an amnesty law was passed to exempt the coup leaders and others involved in the violence from prosecution. This has been a recurrent practice subsequent to the intermittent coups which the country has witnessed throughout the years. Basically, a law is put in place to ensure the impunity of coup leaders and whatever transgressions are committed by them. The law might be in the form of a specific decree, statutory law or inserted into the new constitution that is adopted later. The current 20th Constitution is an example of the third model; the impunity provision is found in the final section of the law.

Yet, internationally, self-amnesties are seen as illegal. If an amnesty is to be legitimate, it must be through a parliamentary act with the people's blessing rather than a self-validating act on the part of those who committed a crime or overthrew democratic rule. Argentina has shown the way, with the legislature having invalidated a self-amnesty law passed by coup leaders.

Secondly, although there were three investigations after the May tragedy, not all the findings have been made public. The government set up a fact-finding committee to document what had happened. There was also a parliamentary committee on the matter, as well as a committee established by the military authorities. Yet, parts of their work were shrouded by opacity and to date, those responsible for the violence against civilians have not been identified and rendered accountable for their actions. Regrettably, this scenario exemplifies the entrenchment of impunity in Thai history which has been repeated again and again. This is currently one of the key issues to be addressed in Thailand's forthcoming dialogue with the UN's Committee against Torture under the Convention against Torture to which Thailand is now a party.

Thirdly, the period leading to the May events as well as that traumatic month attested to extensive censorship of the news. Those in power issued many decrees prohibiting reporting of the news. When the violence took place, especially between May 17-20, the news reports were censored or blocked altogether at the national and local levels. It was the international media which exposed the various shootings of civilians, their arrests and the pervasive presence of the armed forces partnering with the police in the clampdown. Even today, the history of this period has not been taught (or is not allowed to be taught) to the younger generation.

Fourthly, the use of force against civilian demonstrators was not necessary nor proportionate to the circumstances. While it is true that tens of thousands (and at times well over a hundred thousand) people were on the streets protesting against military rule, they were generally peaceful. This is despite the fact that at times there was a suspected "third hand" which might have been agent provocateurs. Yet, the military-backed operations that were executed on the streets and nearby were excessive and against international rules concerning the use of weapons, especially in relation to crowd control. The UN's Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcers, adopted in 1990, were already applicable and required the use of firearms to be a measure of last resort, as well as a graduated approach to deal with demonstrations, in particular to use non-violent methods (such as negotiations, first and foremost).

Available footage from the era proves that shots were fired at point blank range at some of the street demonstrators by armed officials. Some soldiers were also seen to be stamping on or rifle-butting demonstrators who were compelled to lie on the ground outside and in a hotel next to the shootings. A number of persons were carted off in trucks and this might also be linked to some enforced disappearances. The lesson learned is the necessity to use only trained personnel in relation to street demonstrations, particularly to abide by a graduated approach and to avoid a shoot-to-kill mentality, as well as acts tantamount to torture.

Incidentally, another committee was appointed to deal with the victims, and it paved the way to compensate them. This has tended to be the practice, also since then, to "pay up and pay out", with no one found to be responsible for the crimes that took place. Morally at least, the public can also be humble and remember another refrain which is ever-pertinent globally. Nunca Mas (never more, please).

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University. He has helped the UN as Special Rapporteur, Independent Expert and member of UN Commissions of Inquiry on human rights. He is the author of "The Core Human Rights Treaties and Thailand".

Vitit Muntarbhorn

Professor of law at Chulalongkorn University

Vitit Muntarbhorn is professor emeritus at the Law Faculty, Chulalongkorn University. He has helped the UN in a various positions, including as UN Special Rapporteur, UN Independent Expert and member of UN Commissions of Inquiry on human rights.

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