Has Thailand Lost Its Conscience?

Sin Chiew Daily (Editorial, The Nation/ANN), Oct 28, 2004

Bangkok, Thailand -- The violent crackdown on Muslim protesters in Narathiwat's Tak Bai district on Monday, which resulted in several deaths during a bloody clash at the scene of the protest and the subsequent loss of scores more lives after more than 1,300 people, mainly young men, were rounded up and put in the army's custody, has been met with what can only be described as widespread public apathy.

The relative lack of a public response to this glaring example of state-sponsored violence is reminiscent of the ambivalent public reaction to the news that the Thaksin administration's anti-drug campaign had left more than 2,000 suspects dead in its wake, including many victims of extra-judicial killings.

It comes as no surprise that both the Tak Bai crackdown, which resulted in more than 80 deaths, and the war on drugs were both authorised by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

In both instances, the Thaksin administration showed a total disregard for the most basic human rights guaranteed by the Constitution to all Thai citizens, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.

If the prevailing public opinion is any guide, then Thaksin obviously got away with the bloody crackdown on drug traffickers. It is not yet clear how well or how badly he will fare in the wake of the Tak Bai incident.

Most of the protesters had been observing the Ramadan fasting period and were therefore prone to severe dehydration and exhaustion, yet they were given neither food nor drink after being arrested.

Prisoners, all of them with their hands tied behind their back, were packed - many stacked up horizontally, several people deep - into military vehicles and heavy trucks. As a result, many of them suffocated or were crushed to death while being transported to an army barracks in Pattani for interrogation.

It is not an exaggeration to say that cattle being delivered to the slaughter house are provided better conditions and more humane treatment.

The circumstances leading to this catastrophe remain sketchy and could not be independently confirmed a few days after the tragic and preventable deaths were allowed to happen under the watch of the Fourth Army.

The gross incompetence and total absence of professionalism in the handling of the protesters on display here cuts straight to the heart of the army's supposed commitment to restoring peace in the restive Muslim-majority southernmost provinces by winning the hearts and minds of the locals while working to weed out Islamic militancy through military means.

At this point, it would matter little if some of the arrested protesters turned out to be known Islamic militants who had committed or been involved in the flare-up of murder and terror that has raged in the South. Even the most vicious and evil of terrorists are entitled to due process of law and a fair trial.

These deaths fly in the face of the military's code of conduct, which demands that civilians and enemy combatants alike be treated humanely. This is of course to make no mention of the imperatives of common human decency.

Instead of initiating an independent inquiry into this tragic incident, General Sirichai Thanyasiri, who is in charge of the military command in the Muslim South, on Wednesday appointed senior government officials and army and police officers to determine whether any wrongdoing had been committed leading to the deaths of so many of the protesters in the Fourth Army's custody.

This thinly veiled charade of justice is a fresh affront to the already grieving local Muslim population, which will naturally want a full explanation of what happened to its loved ones. They expect to see that justice is done, wrongdoers punished, their loss compensated and, above all, that the Thaksin administration make a sincere and unreserved public apology.

Without waiting for the outcome of the internal investigation, Prime Minister Thaksin has had the nerve to extend his forgiveness to all military personnel involved, casually dismissing the deaths of the protesters in captivity as an "unfortunate accident".

The prime minister also appeared unperturbed by the chorus of international condemnation, saying instead that Thailand could explain away what happened simply as an internal affair.

Most conspicuous, however, has been the absence of public outrage in this country over the brutal treatment of the Tak Bai protesters. Only a handful of human rights advocates have made any noise.

In a predominantly Buddhist country that ascribes to itself such noble attributes as compassion, respect for the sanctity of life and tolerance, the silence of the voice of conscience is deafening.