Parliamentary Findings Demand Strong Action to Combat Police Brutality
New York, March 16, 2012 –A Thai parliamentary inquiry that found that police used excessive force in the fatal shooting of a drug suspect should prompt an immediate criminal investigation and prosecution of those responsible, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 14, 2012, the parliamentary Police Affairs Committee announced its findings in the shooting death of Pairote Saengrit, a 24-year-old engineer, in Sakon Nakhon province.
On the night of December 27, 2011, police from the Sakon Nakhon provincial anti-drug squad shot and killed Pairote, saying he was a drug trafficker who was trying to evade arrest after a car chase. The police claimed that they fired at Pairote in self-defense, but Pairote and the two passengers in his car were later found by police to have been unarmed.
“The parliamentary committee’s findings in Pairote’s death should prompt a serious and impartial criminal investigation into possible police misconduct,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s nationwide drug crackdown is not a green light for the police to operate above the law.”
Denchai Saengrit, Pairote’s elder brother, told Human Rights Watch that Pairote was driving with him and Pairote’s girlfriend, Panadda Kwanma, to have dinner at the Kin Deum Restaurant near Kasetsart University’s Sakon Nakhon campus. At around 9 p.m., as their car arrived at the restaurant, a group of men in civilian clothes fired at them twice from the rear. To escape the gunfire, Pairote drove the car into the university campus.
An unmarked pickup truck chased Pairote’s car from the restaurant into the campus and then out to the main road. Denchai said that the pickup truck cut off Pairote’s car. Two more gunshots were heard and a bullet struck Pairote in the head, killing him instantly. Five men in civilian clothes then approached the car and ordered out Denchai and Panadda, who begged for her life.
The men then identified themselves as police from Sakon Nakhon provincial command and said Pairote was a wanted drug trafficker. According to Denchai, police said at the scene that they found no drugs either in Pairote’s car or on the bodies of Pairote and the other passengers.
Two days later, on December 29, Police Maj. Gen. Polsak Banjongsiri, commander of Sakon Nakhon provincial command, told the media that the police had found 198 pills of methamphetamine wrapped in a black plastic bag hidden in Pairote’s boxer trunks when police examined his body in the morgue. He also said that police in this operation had opened fire in self-defense.
The Saengrit family filed a complaint with the parliamentary Police Affairs Committee on January 11, asking for an inquiry into the matter. On March 14, the committee concluded that the Sakon Nakhon provincial command anti-drug squad under the command of Police Lt. Col. Veerawuth Siangsai used lethal force unnecessarily and excessively in the shooting death of Pairote. The committee found no evidence to justify the claim made by the officers that they were acting in self-defense because Pairote and other passengers in his car neither had weapons nor took any life-threatening action against the police.
In addition, the committee concluded that a bag of methamphetamine had been planted on Pairote’s body after his death. The committee cited statements by medical personnel at the hospital, who thoroughly searched Pairote’s body twice, including removing his clothes, and did not find any drugs. It said that the police produced the bag containing 198 pills, saying they had found it on Pairote’s body, only after they entered the morgue and ordered everyone else outside.
“The parliamentary committee’s findings are both brave and virtually unprecedented because the committee directly accuses a police anti-drug squad of an illegal killing,” Adams said. “Unfortunately, this is not a unique incident but exemplifies a broad pattern of police brutality that has gone unchecked for many years. The question now is whether the government will show political courage to ensure the prosecution of those responsible for the killing.”
The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that whenever the use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officers must act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense with the objective of minimizing damage and injury. However, Thai police have a long history of using excessive and unnecessary lethal force against criminal suspects, particularly suspected drug traffickers and users. Human Rights Watch documented extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights violations in the context of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s “war on drugs” in 2003 and 2004. Many of those killed had been previously blacklisted by police as suspected drug traffickers.
The 2007 Independent Committee for the Investigation, Study and Analysis of the Formation and Implementation of Drug Suppression Policy (ICID), chaired by former attorney general Kanit na Nakhon, concluded that the Thaksin government formulated and implemented the “war on drugs” without respect for human rights or due process of law. The committee found that 2,819 people were killed during the government’s anti-drug campaign between February and April 2003. However, successive governments have failed to conduct a criminal inquiry into the killings reported by the committee. The current government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister, has publicly and repeatedly refused to blame Thaksin for the killings and other human rights abuses committed during the 2003 “war on drugs” campaign.
“Prime Minister Yingluck needs to ensure that the current anti-drug campaign does not lead Thailand back to the dark era of Thaksin’s brutal ‘war on drugs,’” Adams said. “Only by holding those responsible for the killing in Sakon Nakhon, and opening serious investigations into other killings during the 2003 anti-drug campaign, will the government show it is serious about upholding the rule of law.”
MAHASARAKHAM – In 1996, a group of government officers from the Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO) proposed an alternative to the reigning model of chemical farming. Buoyed by their idealism and Japanese funding, they initiated a pilot program that trained and established a small network of organic farmers. The result is a community of 900 farmers in four Isaan provinces who now farm a far greater diversity of crops, reject agrochemicals altogether, and are equipped with the skills to package and market their organic goods locally.
In the last few decades, Thailand has implemented a series of government policies that incentivize farmers to produce cash crops like rice, cassava, rubber, and sugarcane. Now an international leading exporter of rice and rubber, Thailand has successfully stimulated its agricultural sector, helping reduce the national level of poverty dramatically. But with this increase in cash crop farming has come a heavy dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides – agrochemicals continue pouring into the country and Thailand’s fertile soil is slowly drying out.
High levels of agrochemicals found in Thailand’s crops last year have also brought international attention to Thailand’s farming habits. Last year, the EU threatened to ban Thai exports on many vegetables, citing dangerous levels of pesticides. In the last ten years, imports of pesticides have more than tripled in Thailand and many worry that without an official monitoring system in place, farmers are likely overusing agrochemicals in attempts to increase their yields and fill their pockets. Concerns for consumers’ health and Thailand’s environment are rapidly rising.
Making a switch back to organic practices in Thailand, however, is far from simple. For one, agribusinesses can offer high prices for exportable goods and farmers are easily enticed by the promise of a greater income. In addition, the government protects its cash crop farmers far better than its organic farmers who diversify the crops in their fields. According to the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, every administration since 1995 has implemented policies that offer insurance to cash crop farmers and price guarantees for their crops. Farmers who opt to farm a variety of crops, on the other hand, are left with far more risk in a country prone to natural disasters.
With these concerns in mind, the Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO) contacted farmers in Sakon Nakhon, Mukdahan, Mahasarakham, and Khon Kaen. Over many years, the ALRO succeeded in teaching former cash crop farmers the benefits of going organic. Though Japanese funding has now run out, these farmers are nearly self-sustainable. They share tasks with one another in co-ops, work together to standardize suitable prices, and sell their goods at local green markets. And they have found that with farms as diverse as the local supermarkets, debt is no longer a concern nor income a worry. The current administration, however, has shown no intention of expanding the program further.
To learn more about the program, the Isaan Record met with farmers who had worked with the ALRO to return to organic practices. Sakhon Thabthimsai, an organic farmer in Borabue district of Mahasarakham province, tells his story in the video above.
The ALRO’s project is just one of many efforts in Northeastern Thailand to rethink and reform the kinds of agriculture being practiced in this part of the country. For more information, visit the Alternative Agriculture Network’s website here.
KHON KAEN – On February 28, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) released a report condemning Khon Kaen University (KKU) for arbitrarily and unjustly dismissing Kittibodi Yaipool from his position as the Acting Dean of the Law Faculty. Mr. Kittibodi, whose abrupt dismissal came in June 2011, submitted the case to the NHRC because he believed that the Office of the President had abused its power for political reasons.
Last June, Acting Dean Mr. Kittibodi was notified by the Office of the President that he was dismissed from the Law Faculty due to allegations of tampering with official documents. He and many of his staff were then banned from the Law Faculty’s premises and moved to other faculties. In response, Mr. Kittibodi submitted the case to the NHRC for a proper investigation. He denies ever tampering with official documents and believes that he was being punished for his support of human rights issues and social activism.
The NHRC concluded that the University did not have enough justification to transfer Mr. Kittibodi and his personnel. Their report ultimately urges the University to officially exonerate all transferred staff members and to consider reinstating them in their former positions.
“The University should publicly apologize for its mistake, neglect, and the false information given to the University community,” the report reads. “The University should also inform the public that those who were transferred from the faculty are not guilty.”
Khon Kaen University has yet to issue its decision.
Frustrated with the University’s silence, over 100 activists and villagers took to the Office of the President on Tuesday to demand that the president admit his faults. Suwit Khulabwong, the event’s organizer, led the crowd in chants calling for KKU President Kittichai Triratanasirichai’s resignation.
“The report from the NHRC has come out and we can see clearly that the president abused his power and violated human rights,” he said in an interview. “What is the [president's] responsibility? The president has to quit.”
Mr. Kittibodi helped found the Law Faculty at KKU in 2006 and thereafter began demonstrating his commitment to community rights in Isaan. He established free courses for Isaan villagers to learn about the legal system and also regularly encouraged students in the faculty to volunteer in remote communities struggling with legal issues. Now, he is on a crusade to prove to the public that the University violated his own rights.
“I have been using my rights, the law, and the constitution as a route to find justice and now it is up to the University to take responsibility once they hear the decisions of neutral organizations that [make decisions] following the constitution,” Mr. Kittibodi said in a phone interview. “I believe that the University should demonstrate their responsibility to be an exemplar for society.”
KHON KAEN – On Thursday, the European External Action Service of the European Union launched its funding for an Isaan language program, The Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program (ICMRP), at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University (KKU). The EU pledged nearly half a million euros to a program that codifies Isaan language for its integration into city schools and local signage.
The program will develop an Isaan language curriculum implemented in 17 public schools, record and archive Isaan cultural dance and performance, introduce official city signage in Isaan language, and initiate a weekly ‘Isaan Day’ that encourages government employees to wear traditional Isaan clothing. The mayors of Khon Kaen, Phol, Chumphae, and Ban Phai will collaborate with a coordination team at KKU over four years in the hopes of enhancing the perception of Isaan culture and language.
Khon Kaen’s Governor, Sombat Triwatsuwan, delivered the opening address in which he talked (partly in Isaan language) about the need to preserve Isaan language for future generations and encourage people not to be ashamed of it. “Isaan people are shy to speak their own language,” he said in an interview. “I want them to be aware of its value.”
National media has given Isaan people good reason to shy away from speaking Isaan language in formal settings. According to John Draper, a sociolinguistic researcher at KKU and the Project Officer of the ICMRP, they are popularly cast as “maids, laborers, and servants, and this is made obvious through the way they speak, which is often as comic relief.” In studies which test the national perception of Isaan speakers, “consistently, Isaan people come out sounding uneducated, and naïve, however honest and hardworking as well,” he explained.
Mr. Draper (also an Isaan Record contributor) argues that this program should not only enhance the perception of Isaan speakers by publicly embracing the language, but also help close the performance gap between Isaan and Central Thai students. Research shows that people who achieve literacy in their mother-tongue language at an early age are more likely to achieve better scores in school overall.
Teaching Isaan language and culture in schools, however, is still politically sensitive. Central Thai is Thailand’s only officially recognized language and the government has long fought to keep Thais unified under one language and minority dialects out of the classrooms.
Priya Waeohongsa, Programme Officer of the European Union and an attendee of Thursday’s opening ceremony, argues that it is time for change in Thailand’s centralized education system that was initiated a hundred years ago. “One language [was used] as a medium for control – not only for education’s sake, but to control the people by imposing the central language on the schools [in a time of national integration],” she explained. “At that time it might have been the right thing, but now we found this is not the right approach and we need to revitalize local culture.”
Though some may fear that allowing regional languages in schools could disrupt the long sought after “national unity” of Thailand, programs similar to the ICMRP have revealed quite opposite results. The Asia Foundation, a nongovernmental organization focused on capacity building, has been implementing a similar language program in the Deep South for nearly five decades. “When we did a public perception survey, what the majority of people said very clearly was that they were not on a quest for independence but a quest for common understanding and respect. Our language program puts that into practice,” said Kim McQuay, the organization’s Thailand Representative.
The ICMRP’s Project Officer, Mr. Draper, is confident that this program will maintain the support of government officials like Governor Sombat Triwatsuwan of Khon Kaen by garnering regional interest in mother-tongue education. “Sustainability will come from the top down,” he said. “But the know-how and the knowledge to implement it in a way that people will welcome it will come from this program that was launched today. It will serve as an incubator for larger-scale deployment later.”
KHON KAEN – For the second time in recent weeks, the Campaign Committee to Amend Article 112 (CCAA 112) continued its effort to reform the lèse-majesté law (Article 112) on Khon Kaen University’s campus, this time employing a non-confrontational tactic akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The organizers from the Thai Undergraduate Student Union sought to avoid conflict with the university and chose to identify the event at KKU’s Kwan Mor Hotel as a meeting of the innocuously named “Community Development Institute.” The university, for its part, received a statement of purpose from the Student Union and opted not to inquire about future meetings.
Though the organizers’ procedural sleight of hand could be easily overlooked, it is emblematic of the treacherous pas de deux that Thai intellectuals and universities have been practicing ever since the CCAA 112 began its controversial campaign in mid-January.
Indeed, the previous meeting of CCAA 112 at the campus hotel on January 29 saw its headlining speaker and KKU academic Dr. Buapun Promphakping drop out at the last minute. The Associate Professor at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science later clarified his absence by saying that Manager Online reporters had incorrectly identified his faculty to be one of the event’s organizers and Dr. Buapun, “thought the [faculty] would not be happy with that.”
This Monday afternoon, however, Dr. Buapun sat in on the forum, though he was the only KKU professor in attendance. After last month’s confusion, he chose not to address the audience.
“The upcountry universities are very careful about this sort of thing,” said Dr. Buapun. “Khon Kaen University is not like Thammasat University or Chulalongkorn University [in Bangkok]. We are a [provincial] university and we seem to understand that we are part of the government. Government policy is concerned with security, so [KKU] is more concerned with security than freedom of speech.”
On February 13, Thammasat University decided to officially allow Article 112 activities on campus after its ban on such activities two weeks earlier created much controversy. The decision by Thammasat, notoriously the most politically active campus in Thailand, has not visibly influenced other state-run schools in the provinces.
In addition, Dr. David Streckfuss, the foremost scholar on Thai lèse-majesté law and a resident of Khon Kaen, gave a short presentation on lèse-majesté laws in other constitutional monarchies. He did not, however, utter the word “Thailand” even once.
When asked why he had chosen not to speak about lèse majesté in Thailand, Dr. Streckfuss responded without mention of self-censorship. “Thais might have less access to different kinds of laws or other kinds of provisions [on lèse majesté] from other constitutional monarchies,” he said. “Thailand, or at least the new government, has made a case of wanting to follow international standards of human rights. If that’s the case, then we would look at what those standards are and how they are observed in countries that are members of the European Union, for instance, and how these countries handle lèse majesté.”
Even though Monday’s event proceeded with much circumspection, its student organizers were not distressed by the kind of caution exercised by students and academics alike. Instead, they saw it as integral in their campaign to spread information about Article 112 and the proposed reforms.
“We’re not afraid of anything, but we evaluated the situation and we didn’t want there to be pressure that would have disallowed us from holding the event at all, like the last time when a professor had to remove himself [from the panel],” said a student organizer from the Thai Undergraduate Student Union. “Next, we’re looking to go to Loei or Sakon Nakhon, or if there are people in villages who want to know about 112, we can even set up talks in small communities.”
UDON THANI – From a stage outside Udon Thani’s Provincial Hall, the Red Village movement grew rapidly Sunday evening as it welcomed 1,000 new Isaan villages as official Red Villages for Democracy. The Federation of Red Villages, a branch of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, now boasts a total of 10,260 Red Villages in Thailand.
The Red Village movement garnered media attention last July when just a few hundred villages celebrated Red inauguration ceremonies in Isaan. Now, the Federation of Red Villages is aiming to expand its reach nationwide to 30,000 Red Villages within the next couple of years.
On and offstage on Sunday, local politicians and Red Shirt leaders touted the movement’s success in encouraging the free flow of ideas among Red Shirts fighting for democracy.
“In truth, the idea of the Red Villages did not come from the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, but rather from the people themselves after the protests in Bangkok,” shouted the Member of Parliament (MP) and Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan. “Finally, the people are capable of moving forward by themselves.” In response, thousands of red clad supporters burst out in cheers.
Surathin Pimanmekin, Udon Thani MP and Chief Consultant for the Federation of Red Villages, also spoke of the movement as one that encourages grassroots mobilization. “We want the Red people to take steps forward by themselves,” he said in an interview. “They should have their own political ideology and political thoughts without just following the direction of certain leaders.”
According to the head of the Federation of Red Villages, Kamonsil Singhasuriya, a given village can request a Red Village title if 50% of its constituents sign a petition in favor of the Red branding. Some local Members of Parliament, however, prefer to see a larger show of support. Party List MP Cherdchai Tantirin from Khon Kaen, for example, believes a village should receive a Red title only if more than 70% of the constituents give support.
Though critics have blamed the Red movement and particularly the Red Village movement for inspiring disunity among Thais, Mr. Kamonsil insists that the opposition groups in Red Villages are rarely uncomfortable with the title.
“People who are not Red Shirts are beginning to understand that Red Shirt activities are good for democracy,” he claims. “The opposition tries to blame the Red Shirts, but our fight is peaceful.”
In recent months, the Red Village movement has expanded into the North (with several hundred already inaugurated in Lampang) and the South as well. Local politicians and the Federation of Red Villages have also begun to inaugurate certain districts as Red.
As the sun set behind the Provincial Hall, Red performers led the crowd in song and dance. Between chants and cheers, Red supporters chatted about constitutional amendments and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s imminent arrival in Udon Thani.
“I like being a part of this movement because I want to see a return to a fair constitution in Thailand,” said Samanjit Khotchomphoo from Nong Khai. “It’s as if our rights were stolen after the 2006 coup.” Huddled under a tent, five new friends nodded behind her in agreement.
When the mobile cabinet meeting rolls into Udon Thani on February 21, Withoon Kamonlnaruemet, the president of the Khon Kaen branch of the Federation of Thai Industries, is prepared to woo cabinet members with a presentation. Mr. Withoon and a committee headed by Khon Kaen Governor Sombat Triwatsuwan plan to request a 50 million baht appropriation to conduct a feasibility study and create the blueprints for Northeastern Thailand’s first industrial estate.
“Khon Kaen has all the favorable conditions to attract investors here. We are a hub in the Northeast for logistics, education, and health care. And we have golf,” Mr. Withoon said.
If Mr. Withoon’s presentation is as well received as he expects, thousands of jobs will be created in new Khon Kaen factories. However, it is not yet clear whether Northeastern laborers, long the backbone of Central Thailand’s industrial workforce, would follow investors back home to Isaan.
Heavy industry is not entirely foreign to Khon Kaen. Government policies have promoted the decentralization of industrial development for more than four decades. While most heavy industry remains concentrated in Greater Bangkok and along the Eastern Seaboard, Khon Kaen boasts fifteen large industrial factories.
Yet despite decentralization policies intended to increase the incomes of workers in the Northeast, the manufacturing divisions of at least half of Khon Kaen’s large industrial factories are still staffed with Burmese laborers. “The fish net factories, the garment factories and the shoe factories,” Mr. Withoon explained, listing three of Khon Kaen’s five major areas of industrial concentration, “are mostly staffed with foreigners”.
Indeed a Ministry of Labor official, who wished to remain anonymous, is skeptical that a Northeastern industrial estate would offer wages that Isaan workers would find attractive. “The investors who move operations, will their decision be related to the 300 baht minimum wage policy?” she questioned.
Under the revised 300 baht policy scheduled to go into effect on April 1, the 300 baht per day minimum wage will only apply to Bangkok and six other provinces. Though Khon Kaen’s minimum wage will see a 40% increase to 234 baht per day, it will remain significantly below Bangkok’s.
While it is too soon to ascertain if the proposed industrial estate will draw Northeastern labor back home, the estate’s development seems relatively certain. “The probability is about 70%,” Mr. Withoon predicted. He attributes the high likelihood to the 2011 floods which severely disrupted production and brought billions of baht in damage to factories in Central Thailand. “Businessmen are not in a position to take on any more risk,” Mr. Withoon explained, “and the government hasn’t come forward with a short-term plan or a long-term plan to deal with the threat of flooding. So, an industrial estate in the Northeast is looking pretty good to investors.”
KHON KAEN – The floodwaters have receded, the fields are cleared, and Udom Phanprasri spends his week transplanting his new rice stalks in straight lines across his muddy plot. Neighbors drop by and watch quietly as he sinks the stalks one by one.
In Yangyong village, Mr. Udom is well known for his mastery of farming and villagers often ask to learn his techniques. But while his neighbors are eager to learn his tricks, none have followed suit in his most important decision. Unlike the rest of his village, Mr. Udom embraces organic practices in his farming. The remaining 60 farming families still prefer a far more popular method that relies heavily on agrochemicals.
“It’s difficult to convince the villagers to switch to organic substances,” says Mr. Udom. “Even though I tell them not to use chemicals, they don’t listen because their method is easier. Many farmers try to use bio-fertilizer but then, one month later, they resort to chemicals again.”
Since the 1960s, the use of agrochemicals in Thailand’s agriculture sector has skyrocketed. According to Greenpeace International, an organization that campaigns on environmental issues, Thailand’s farmers have increased their use of chemical fertilizers by a multiple of 94, from only 18,000 tons in 1961 to nearly 1,700,000 tons annually in 2003. The nationwide yield of rice has barely doubled.
This staggering increase in chemical fertilizer coupled with a relatively low gain in crops has led many to worry about possible impacts of chemical waste but has convinced very few farmers to go organic. Excessive or misused chemical fertilizers can threaten farmers’ health and often deplete the quality of the land.
Farmers and experts agree that organic farming remains unpopular mainly because there is no international market for organic produce from Thailand.
“The government focuses on exports so it doesn’t offer organic farmers a rice price guarantee,” explains Professor Wichian Saengchoti of the Research Development Institute at Khon Kaen University. “The government isn’t interested in supporting an alternative production process.”
While the popularly exported jasmine rice can be sold to the government for 20,000 baht per ton, a price nearly double market value, other rice strains that are used in organic farming are not supported by government insurance schemes.
Organic farmers like Mr. Udom are left with little choice but to sell their rice to private millers who often undervalue the product. “The local government officers tell us not to use chemical fertilizers. But when we try to sell to the government, they prefer to buy rice that has been chemically treated,” Mr. Udom complains.
Enticing farmers to turn organic is yet another obstacle. With chemical fertilizer, farmers can see positive results of higher yields and healthier plants within the same season the fertilizer is used. With bio-fertilizers, it can take two to three years to see results.
The Ministry of Agriculture initiated a project to tackle over-dependency on agrochemicals about fifteen years ago. The ministry employs officers in every province to teach Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), a set of farming standards that encourages a mixture of agrochemicals and bio-fertilizers.
“In the past, farmers used only agrochemicals. It’s our duty to reduce the use of chemicals and encourage bio-fertilizers. The results show that a mixture is better than just one or the other,” says Amphon Sirikham, an agricultural specialist for the Ministry of Agriculture.
Nevertheless, in recent years, imports of pesticides have surged from 42,000 tons in 1997 to 137,000 tons in 2009.
Mr. Amphon estimates that in Mr. Udom’s sub-district, Kok Si, about half of the farmers use only agrochemicals and the other half now use a mixture of chemical and bio-products. The switch to organic farming is very rare.
“If Udom is the only organic farmer in his village, he might face difficulties in selling his rice for an appropriate price,” says Dr. Patcharee Saenjan, a professor at KKU’s Faculty of Agriculture. “He needs to join a group of organic farmers or persuade his neighbors to join him. If he is alone, he can’t do anything.”
Networks of organic farmers are sparse in Northeast Thailand. The largest network, the Alternative Agriculture Network, is in Yasothorn and Surin and smaller co-ops are scattered throughout other provinces.
KHON KAEN – The Campaign Committee to Amend Article 112 of the Criminal Code (CCAA 112), the first aggressive, nationwide campaign to reform the world’s harshest lèse-majesté law, made its way to Khon Kaen this past Sunday with a panel discussion and petition-signing held at Khon Kaen University (KKU). Over 100 signatories gathered in the Kwan Mor Hotel to endorse the amendment drafted by the small group of Thammasat Law lecturers know as the Nitirat group.
Both CCAA 112 and the Nitirat group have come under intense criticism since the search for 10,000 signatures began on January 15. For many Thais, the proposal to amend the lèse-majesté law has been construed as a direct attack on long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej himself, and in response, social media users and demonstrators have spared little vitriol for the movement.
Long considered the third rail of Thai politics, the lèse-majesté law has garnered increased media scrutiny and international attention in the past few years as the number of charges have grown by 1500%: from 33 charges in 2005 to 478 reported charges in 2010. Furthermore, the law’s minimum mandatory sentence is an exceptional three years long, with a maximum sentence of 15 years for a single count.
Though Sunday’s Khon Kaen discussion proceeded without incident, KKU’s academics were conspicuously absent, with much of the modest crowd composed of local Red Shirts, independent community members, and student activists.
Boonwat Chumpradit, a Khon Kaen Red Shirt villager in attendance, found the silence of KKU’s professors troubling. “Professors at the university should be the ones leadings us,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to be the ones leading them.”
Still, the campaign is so politically treacherous that even a professor from the Nitirat group declined to attend Khon Kaen’s meeting, telling the event’s organizer that it might endanger his relationship with his employer, Thammasat University. His fears seem to have been justified. The following day, Thammasat University rector Somkit Lertpaithoon announced on his Facebook page that Nitirat was banned from meeting on university property.
Complicating matters is the second campaign launched by Nitirat on January 22 that, among other things, seeks to nullify the legal effects of the 2006 military coup that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Critics, however, claim this is simply a veiled attempt to pardon Mr. Thaksin for his 2008 corruption conviction. As a result, the group is seen as unthinkably transgressive: both pro-Thaksin and anti-monarchy. Indeed, over 200 members of Khon Kaen Residents Who Love the King gathered at the city’s spirit house on Friday night to protest the group on these very grounds.
Sunday’s motley crew of attendees cut across social, if not political boundaries. There were out-and-proud Red Shirts (“I came because I’m a Red Shirt… everyone should be able to critique [the king] just like they can critique a movie star.”), adamantly color-less university technicians (“The movement to correct the constitution is different from the Red Shirt movement.”), closeted Marxists, Yingluck apologists (“In truth Yingluck wants to change the law, but there are many factions in Thailand and she doesn’t want to fight with all these groups.”), and the likes of Ms. Boonwat, who came dressed to the nines in a floppy-brimmed red hat and flowing red dress.
At times, this audience grew rowdy and vocal as they were stirred to applause and cheers by the seminar’s three speakers: Prawet Praphanukul, lawyer to the anti-112 poster-child, Da Torpedo, Wad Rawee from CCAA 112, and Phornchai Yuanyee, Secretary of the Thai Undergraduate Student Union. Together they addressed the history, contradictions, absurdities, and abuses surrounding the lèse-majesté law.
As Sunday afternoon’s seminar came to a close and the floor was opened up to audience members, one KKU student took the microphone and pleaded for more action. “After we sign the petitions, we need to get in touch with our Pheu Thai representatives,” he said. “We are the ones who elected these representatives and now we need to get in touch with them and get them to change this law.”
This outlook, however, is bleak. Late last week, numerous Pheu Thai representatives swore off making any changes to Article 112. “The government and the Pheu Thai Party will never change Section 112 of the Criminal Code,” Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung said. “Even the thought of it can send us to hell.”
The next anti-112 event to be held in Khon Kaen is tentatively scheduled for February 27.
[Correction February 28, 2012: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that there was a 1500% growth in lèse-majesté "cases" between 2005 and 2010. However, the 1500% increase was actually in lèse-majesté charges issued in that time frame, oftentimes with several charges filed in a single case. The article has been amended to reflect this change.]
KHON KAEN – This past Sunday morning, Red Shirt politicians, DJs, local leaders, and hundreds of villagers gathered in Ubolratana district’s Khok Glang Nong Lai village to celebrate the opening of 68 newly minted Red Villages, as well as the inauguration of the province’s first official Red District.
“I hereby open this Red District, [made up of] Villages for Democracy that are safe from drugs and that have strong community economies,” Khon Kaen MP Thanik Masripitak said to cheers and the nearby boom of fireworks. Mr. Thanik is the Pheu Thai MP spearheading the movement’s expansion into Khon Kaen.
Mr. Thanik’s remarks reflect the same platforms that the movement has in its birthplace, Udon Thani. There too, the movement’s chief architect and local Red Radio DJ, Ms. Ratanawan Suksala, began opening Red Districts last year not just as a show of organizational power (as its earlier incarnation, the Red Village movement), but to help fight drug use and to ensure local economic stability.
But where in Udon Thani many of the villages in these Red Districts had been previously inaugurated as Red, in Khon Kaen’s Ubolratana district, prior to Sunday’s ceremony only three villages had been established. This sudden surge of support, Red District Officer and local businessman Sirisak Nojit explains, is a sign of the country’s changing political tides.
“Before people were scared [to show themselves], but now time has passed and people are showing that they’re red,” he said.
Here in Ubolratana, at least, that showing has been quite strong. At least 70-80% of a district’s inhabitants must agree to a Red title before the district can be inaugurated, Mr. Sirisak explained. And in Ubolratana, he said, the figure was closer to 90%, with every village collectively approving the informal door-to-door referendum.
In the coming months, more Khon Kaen Red Shirts will be showing their colors. Phra Yun district is scheduled to be inaugurated on February 19, to be followed soon after by the Nai Muang sub-district of Khon Kaen city.
[Note February 20, 2012: Though Ubolratana was inaugurated as a Red District by MP Thanik, the Federation of Red Villages does not currently recognize the district as Red.]