20 years later, time for justice for Tak Bai
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20 years later, time for justice for Tak Bai

Soldiers moved in to end a protest rally in front of the Tak Bai police station in Tak Bai district in Narathiwat on Oct 25, 2004. Seven demonstrators died at the scene and 78 more were crushed or suffocated to death during transport in military trucks to an army camp in Pattani's Nong Chik district. (Photo: Bangkok Post)
Soldiers moved in to end a protest rally in front of the Tak Bai police station in Tak Bai district in Narathiwat on Oct 25, 2004. Seven demonstrators died at the scene and 78 more were crushed or suffocated to death during transport in military trucks to an army camp in Pattani's Nong Chik district. (Photo: Bangkok Post)

Time flies. But it doesn't fly fast enough for security officers responsible for the Tak Bai massacre almost two decades ago.

Exactly six months before the expiry date in which legal action can be taken in the tragic case, 48 family members of the dead victims and a number of the injured in the carnage filed a lawsuit against nine top southern security authorities on April 25. All are accused of murder, unlawful detention and malfeasance in connection with the 85 deaths in the massacre.

They have been waiting in vain for more than 19 years to see legal action initiated by the state to bring justice to their families. Finally, they decided to act on their own after no moves emerged from police and prosecutors -- except for compensation paid to their families and the injured. What they really want to see is legal action to be taken against those responsible for the cruel deaths.

The affected villagers and their human rights lawyers expect a rough ride in this battle as some, if not all, accused are not ordinary people and some have political connections. The villagers and their lawyers did not name those responsible in public. But that will not be a secret any more on June 24, when the Provincial Court in Narathiwat orders them to appear for the inquiry process. The judges then will decide whether or not the case will proceed, or be dropped.

The report of an inquiry committee -- led by then-ombudsman Pichet Sunthornpipit and summarised by King Prajadhipok's Institute -- already gives a clear indication of what happened on that day, what went wrong, and who should be blamed.

And the explanation by police in a letter dated April 25 to the attorney general could also possibly be a hint of how the nine security officers will defend themselves to counter the allegations.

On Oct 25, 2004, about 1,500 people assembled in front of Tak Bai police station in Tak Bai district in Narathiwat to demand the release of six defence volunteers under detention there. The unexpectedly big turnout turned out to be bloody after security authorities decided to break up the crowds. That led to seven deaths at the site and 78 more during the transport of 1,370 protesters to the Ingkhayutthaborihan Military Camp in Nong Chik district in Pattani.

The decision to move them to the camp, which is 150 kilometres away, was to screen about 30 protest leaders for arrest and let the others go home. It was the only place to accommodate a large number of people with prisons and a hospital already in the compound.

According to the report, Gen Pisan Wattanawongkiri, then a lieutenant general commanding the Fourth Army Region, approved the crackdown as martial law announced by the government on Jan 5, 2004, and opened the way for the armed forces to be the main agency to ensure security. The then-Fifth Infantry Division Commander, Maj Gen Chalermchai Wirunpeth, was responsible for implementing the order, while Lt Gen Sinchai Nutsathit, the then-deputy regional army chief, was assigned to handle the detained protesters once the convoy of the trucks reached Ingkhayutthaborihan.

The problem occurred during the transport as authorities prepared only 28 trucks from the army, police and marine units, meaning that each lorry had to take almost 50 protesters for five hours from the protest site to the Pattani camp. The demonstrators were ordered to lie with their heads down and were packed in three or four piles deep while soldiers stood guard on the vehicle, according to the report.

That led to the deaths due to suffocation, which officers found when the convoy arrived at the camp at 1am the following day. The three top officers are expected to be on the list of nine officials sued by the villagers.

Coincidentally, the same day, when the villagers took the case to the Narathiwat court on April 25, the Royal Thai Police sent a letter to the attorney general defending their inaction after the massive deaths on the convoy were reported at the camp in Pattani. Police cited "force majeure" as a reason not to charge the top army officers because the deaths were unintentional. But state prosecutors could make a legal move on their own if they are not happy with the police's decision to do nothing in this case. That has never happened.

The case will be a test for justice for the Pheu Thai Party, as Gen Pisan is its party-list MP. The massacre took place when Thaksin Shinawatra was prime minister as his government failed to restore peace in the far South. And the problem drags on until today. Now, the villagers are fighting without help from state prosecutors.

But they will never walk alone if the court decides to go ahead with the case on June 24. Hopefully, time will be on the side of the victims' families this time.

Saritdet Marukatat

Bangkok Post columnist and former Digital Media News Editor

Saritdet Marukatat is a Bangkok Post columnist and former Digital Media News Editor at the paper. Contact Saritdet at saritdet@yahoo.com

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