Too little, too late for Lahu traumatised by youth's killing

Too little, too late for Lahu traumatised by youth's killing

Tribute to a young victim: Lahu children from Ban Kong Phak Ping village perform a traditional dance at the gathering to mourn the death of youth activist Chaiyaphum Pasae. PHOTO: Paritta Wangkiat
Tribute to a young victim: Lahu children from Ban Kong Phak Ping village perform a traditional dance at the gathering to mourn the death of youth activist Chaiyaphum Pasae. PHOTO: Paritta Wangkiat

'They pointed a gun at me," Lana whispers into my ear. It's like a confession after her attempts to tell me fragments of a happy story that sounds like her Lahu community lives in a peaceful haven -- but she hesitates when saying "they are helping to develop us".

She will only use the terms "they" or "them" throughout our conversation instead of identifying the persons.

In 2005, the gun was pointed at her by "them" to prevent her and other Lahu accessing their farmland in Ban Kong Phak Ping village in Chiang Mai's Chiang Dao district, just a few kilometres from the Thai-Myanmar border. The altercation followed their discovery of young plants placed on the land as part of the authorities' forestation project, which the Lahu were unaware of.

The Lahu just wanted to reclaim part of the land to plant rice to catch up with the annual farming schedule. "They" accused the Lahu of encroaching on public land and chased away Lana's group at gunpoint. Lana was unscathed but a companion was hurt.

The simple life: A Lahu woman cleans her boots after collecting vegetables. PHOTO: Paritta Wangkiat

The Lahu form the majority of her village. Many of them are stateless with zero legal rights to protect them. It's called the village of drug dealers.

Lana, 53, is a respected a community leader who faced the toughest time during the Thaksin Shinwatra administration's war on drugs in 2003. Human Rights Watch reported 2,275 extrajudicial killings across the country in the first three months of the campaign.

Her village, not far from Myanmar's Shan state, a region notorious as a narcotics hub, was classified as a red zone -- an area of drug prevalence.

Fabric of life: An ethnic woman demonstrates weaving techniques at the 'Crafts from the Hands of the Hills to the Hands of the Queen Exhibition' at The Queen's Gallery. PHOTO: Chanat Katanyu

Violence is imprinted in her memory. Some local Lahu were reportedly beaten up by officials as suspected drug dealers.

Amid the intense drug suppression, Lana was charged with resisting an operation to arrest two Lahu drug suspects in her village. Their house was raided but no drugs were discovered. The officials refused to back down despite the lack of evidence. They demanded Lana, who was widely respected in the local community, assist in the arrest.

After she refused to collaborate, she was arrested then imprisoned for nine months.

"Not all of us sell drugs, you know? Just because I refused to be obedient doesn't mean I was a wrongdoer," she says.

"We've fought for our rights for so long until we're bored to fight and let it be."

She rests on a chair next to me during a gathering on the spot where Lahu rights advocate Chaiyaphum Pasae, 17, was killed on the morning of March 17 for resisting arrest after officials allegedly found methamphetamine pills in his car. They are here to mark 60 days since his death and to uncover the truth.

Lana whispers in my ear again. "I can't sleep at night after his death."

She wouldn't clarify "them" or "they" for me. But when she accidentally exposes their rank, she quickly holds her thought.

Perhaps like other Lahu who have been stigmatised and experienced violence for decades, her sleepless nights will continue until the day she can speak openly of who "they" are.

 

A life cut short: An exhibition was organised in Bangkok in memory of the slayed Lahu youth activist Chaiyaphum Pasae. PHOTO: Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

THE DAY HE DIED

Chaiyaphum and a friend were driving from their home to Chiang Mai town. Soldiers stopped their car at a checkpoint just 10km from Ban Kong Phak Ping village.

According to the official account, some 2,800 methamphetamine pills were found in the car.

Chaiyaphum allegedly brandished a hand grenade as he tried to resist arrest and flee, prompting the soldiers to fire in self-defence.

According to an investigation by Police Region 5, Chaiyaphum was a drug dealer who had large sums of money transferred to his account every week. The report claims he was almost caught once during a sting operation.

It was later revealed that military CCTV camera footage captured the shooting scene. But it has yet to be revealed to the public, raising doubts about the legitimacy of the military's extrajudicial killing.

Police filed a case at Chiang Mai court alleging Chaiyaphum and his friend were caught in possession of drugs. The case was closely followed by the lawyer of a civil society organisation.

Many locals do not believe the Lahu youth was linked to drugs. But people in his village are watching the case from distance. It's also not an issue that they speak about openly in their community despite the loss.

Chaiyaphum's death heightens the fear the Lahu community have lived with after long years of discrimination and the stigma left by the war on drugs.

Border towns in northern Thailand are identified as conduits of drugs produced in Myanmar's ethnic-controlled border areas. Some ethnic groups in Thailand are involved in drug smuggling as they are familiar with the area and have the ability to communicate with ethnic groups on both sides of the border.

Chief among the recognised groups is the United Wa State Army, who signed a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government in 2013, relocating their force from the north of Shan state to the Thai-Myanmar border.

There also other ethnic groups such as the Lahu militants. On the evening of May 13, nine people allegedly linked to the group were killed in a clash with Thai police and military personnel at Ban Pha Mee in Chiang Rai's Mae Sai district. Over 700,000 methamphetamine pills, an AK-47 and two M16 assault rifles were seized.

Media stories that often identify entire ethnic groups as drug suspects perpetuates and exacerbates discrimination against such minorities. Some local ethnic people believe they have always been treated badly.

"I admit that my hometown harbours drug dealers. But it's unfair to generalise that we're all children of drug lords," says Saroj, 44, a Lahu in Ban Kong Phak Ping.

Checkpoints became a common encounter during my daily drive with another journalist tracing the shadow of Chaiyaphum in Chiang Mai's border towns. We passed the checkpoints easily.

But when it's Saroj's turn, he usually has to undergo a urine test despite this being a routine commute for him.

His 17-year-old nephew says he has been slapped in the face by a soldier. On another occasion, he was beaten and stamped on by military personnel although no drugs were found on him.

Four other Lahu I interviewed told me similar stories. They have all experienced violence themselves or have friends or family who have faced official violence.

"Life is already difficult for ethnic people who don't have status here. They have no choice but to submit to fate. Would they [the military] do the same to suspects if they are not ethnic?" Saroj asks.

AFTER THE DAY HE DIED

Aid has flooded into Chaiyaphum's village. The state and military have dispatched resources to remedy the community's loss. A new toilet was installed in mother's house.

Trucks were seen delivering construction materials to the village to build facilities. Soon they will get water tanks and electricity lines. New social development projects will be slated for the village soon.

Local authorities visit the community to survey their problems and requirements. The chief of Chiang Dao district recently visited the village -- some locals say he is the first chief to visit their community in a decade.

"This village has been neglected for so long. When the incident [Chaiyaphum's killing] took place, we allocated a budget to assist the villagers because we don't want them to be left behind," says Chiang Dao district chief Sarawut Worapong.

Third Region Army commander Vijak Siribunso -- who previously told reporters he personally thought soldiers' act of self-defence when they shot Chaiyaphum was legitimate -- said in a phone interview the military had good intentions to take care of the community after their loss.

He saw a chance for the military to promote a youth camp to help them avoid drugs as the village is still tagged as a red zone.

Some drug addicts will be screened and sent to the retreat camp, part of the government's policy to tackle drug prevalence by treating addicts as patients rather than criminals. "We won't use the military way," says Lt Gen Vijak, referring to the military approach to curbing drugs. On the task of drug suppression, he said military units on the ground always operate with proper practice.

"We won't use weapons unless it's necessary. Weapons are only for self-defence and must not affect others that are not the target. We don't allow field officers to hold loaded guns without cause. It's our iron law."

Last rites: A Lahu elder from Ban Kong Phak Ping village leads the ritual to mourn for Chaiyaphum Pasae at the gathering on May 17. PHOTO: Paritta Wangkiat

However, the overwhelming military presence in the community has made some Lahu feel insecure, especially those close to Chaiyaphum or those who have experienced violence.

They claimed to have been photographed by military officials. Officials also took pictures of houses, claiming it was part of a survey to allocate aid.

A diagram of the drug network was shown to some community members which contained the names of their friends, in order to sow discord among the community.

In early 2015, a video clip of a conversation between military personnel and Lahu people at Ban Kong Phak Ping was released on social media, showing a group of resentful locals demanding the military take responsibility for violence that occurred on New Year's Eve.

According to the clip, an unidentified official went to the village in a military vehicle and slapped children and villagers who were warming themselves by a fire.

"[They] pointed a gun at us," says someone in the video. Military officials claim there was no violence.

The clip went viral. It was edited and added to by an anti-junta group who spread it online to attack the government.

Maitree Chamroensuksakul, the Lahu who released the clip, was sued by the military for violating the Computer Crime Act by spreading false information.

The Chiang Mai Court dismissed the case in 2016, saying that there was no proof the defendants spread the modified video clip. The court ruled that Maitree had released true information, as several witnesses confirmed that villagers had been hurt.

SIXTY DAYS AFTER HE DIED

Villagers are still seeking the truth behind Chaiyaphum's death.

At the checkpoint where he was shot, locals gathered to mourn his death. Lahu elders performed rituals, lighting candles and chanting.

Chaiyaphum's death drew academics and rights activists to observe the scene. Some participants inspected the spot where the youngster collapsed, tracing the ghost of Chaiyaphum on the ground.

"We want to know if his dignity can be recognised. If he's a wrongdoer, we will admit that. But regardless of whether he was right or wrong, killings like this shouldn't happen so easily," says Maitree during the gathering.

We shall remember him: Villagers, academics and activists gather to mourn the 60 days since the death of Chaiyaphum Pasae near the checkpoint where he was killed on March 17. PHOTO: Paritta Wangkiat

Human rights lawyer Surapong Kongchantuk then took turn to speak, reflecting on past violence as a result of the state's ignorance of the fact that Thailand is a multicultural society.

"If this fact is accepted, officials will operate more humanely. We need to eliminate the bias that all Lahu are associated with drugs," he said.

Atthachak Sattayanurak, an academic at Chiang Mai University, says the violence is a part of the authoritarianism that puts marginalised people vulnerable to abuse of power.

Especially when Thailand's political environment is not conducive to democracy, vulnerable people like ethnic minorities are at the mercy of the state.

The speeches are emotional and inspiring, calling for ethnic strength to seek for the truth.

Lana is listening to the speeches in an interval of our conversation. She tells me she learned about her tribe being drug lords from the television.

As she keeps a faint smile when telling me her life story, I ask why she maintains such an expression.

"It's just the way I am dealing with the problem. Actually, I'm scared."

Seeking justice: Srisuwan Janya, secretary-general of the Association to Protect the Thai Constitution, requests the Office of the Ombudsman investigate Chaiyaphum's death. photo: Tawatchai Kemgumnerd

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