It is discouraging that the long-awaited report from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on the violence surrounding the April-May 2010 demonstrations in Bangkok failed to move the country any closer to reconciliation. In fact it appears that it has only widened the divisions in society.
It is too soon to say whether the report failed to properly scrutinise the actions of the Abhisit Vejjajiva government during the crackdown, as charged last week by groups associated with the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship as well as some civil groups and academics (see this week's Spectrum). That will be easier to assess after the testimony and documentation which the NHRC used to come to its conclusions are fully disseminated to the public in the coming weeks.
The report's detractors have called for the NHRC commissioners to resign, arguing that as defenders of human rights in Thailand, they have failed in their duty. While this can be dismissed as yet another knee-jerk reaction in colour-coded Thai politics, there do appear to be valid reasons for this position. It is fair to ask whether the NHRC avoided lines of inquiry during its investigation and why, as its critics charge, as an independent body it largely accepted the authority's version of events. The critics say that although the report took a full three years to compile, it lacks detail.
In a Spectrum interview, NHRC chairwoman Amara Pongsapich declined to comment on this because "some incidents or individuals are involved in lawsuits now". This answer is not entirely satisfying. It is also unusual that a report on such a highly-charged set of events from Thailand's agency officially in charge of protecting human rights was merely put on the organisation's website without any accompanying press briefing or public announcement.
Ms Amara said this was because "we've been criticised too much already and do not want to be bothered any more". Although she is no doubt correct in saying that debate over the NHRC report has been politicised, it doesn't help that Ms Amara's criticisms of Thaksin Shinawatra's political leadership are a matter of record. In February, 2006, when she was dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University, Ms Amara signed a petition to remove Thaksin from power, seven months before the military coup. She was appointed to her present position under the Abhisit government.
None of this of course precludes her being a fair arbiter in the investigation into the 2010 violence or any other matter, but it does make speculation of bias all but inevitable. It has also been pointed out that Ms Amara and some other NHRC commissioners have relatively little direct experience in the area of human rights protection. On the other hand, Ms Amara's strong background as an anthropologist, researcher and teacher should not be discounted as they allow her to bring a valuable perspective to human rights issues. In any case, the merits of the report should be judged primarily on its content, not the background of the commissioners.
The most serious flaw of the human right's body's report is that it ultimately attributes the violence primarily to the presence of the mysterious "men in black" but doesn't present any convincing new evidence to back up this assertion. The reasoning of the report seems to be that the protesters were acting illegally and causing a public disturbance, something many if not most people would agree with. From this it might follow that the government was justified in using force if necessary to break up the demonstration. But in apparently defending the use of deadly force, the report cites the involvement of an allegedly heavily armed, dark-clad paramilitary group in several lethal conflicts between protesters and government security forces.
The South Bangkok Criminal Court found no evidence of the involvement of such a group in the killings of six people inside the compound of Wat Pathum Wanaram on May 19. The court ruled they died as a result of gunshot wounds inflicted by security forces.
On the other hand there are a number of accounts of varying credibility of the existence of the men in black, and also photos on the internet that seem to show darkly clad, heavily armed men on the periphery of 2010 red shirt demonstrations. However, to lay all of the deaths and injuries on this mysterious and almost mythical force without new and compelling evidence to back it up seems quite a stretch.