Thailand's vicious cycle of impunity
Robert Karniol, Defence Writer
14 June 2012
The Straits Times
THAILAND appears stuck in a perpetual cycle of military coups, in large part because the country's leadership invariably accents amnesty over accountability.
'Amnesty in Thailand has not been used properly. It has allowed the truth to be buried,' said Mr Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher with the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
'That's why, for us, it is unacceptable.'
New Mandala, the thoughtful Australian website focused on mainland South-east Asia, shows Thailand as having had 11 successful and nine unsuccessful military coups since 1912. Contributors suggest several others in addition.
The most recent of these, in September 2006, deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and nurtured political upheaval that has yet to be resolved. This process includes the ongoing heated debate over a reconciliation Bill offered in four versions, each providing legal amnesty for 'politically related' acts committed during a specific timeframe.
Beyond that, the government also seeks to neuter the independent fact-finding commission charged with investigating this crisis. The release of its report would be delayed indefinitely, and the names of those responsible for violence and criminal acts would be redacted.
Echoing the view held more broadly by international humanitarian groups, Mr Sunai commented: 'It is critical that the Thai government hold all those responsible for serious crimes (on both sides) to account in order to provide justice for victims of abuse and stop the vicious cycle of violence and impunity that persists in the country.'
Though the political climate that spawned this situation is arguably unique in Thailand's history, the government's response in turning for a solution to blanket amnesty is effectively the norm. Almost invariably over this past century it has been used to absolve the armed forces of responsibility for their political intervention, and was also invoked to help end the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) rebellion.
Critically, though, the CPT amnesty still allowed for the investigation and prosecution of criminal acts - even if these were eventually pardoned. Military amnesties instead whitewash events.
There are several serious consequences to the culture of impunity that this has bred, beginning with justice denied to the victims of abuse and violence. Further, amnesties have allowed no closure to those directly affected by suppressing the investigations that would shed light on events.
The political dimension is no less unsettling. Amnesties granted to Thai military coup-makers - always for those successful and sometimes for those who fail - encourage repeated intervention by removing a significant cost in the threat of imprisonment.
This allows the armed forces to continually hold government hostage and undermines a core democratic principle of civilian control over the military.
These two factors, in turn, extend beyond immediate events to inhibit the government and the courts from investigating and prosecuting operational transgressions.
Most obvious among these in recent memory are allegations of widespread extra-judicial killings linked to Thaksin's 'war on drugs', as well as the death by suffocation of 85 demonstrators under army control at Tak Bai and the use of excessive force resulting in over 100 deaths at Krue Sai Mosque. Numerous other lethal incidents involving the Thai military have never been fully examined, explained and acted upon.
Part of the problem is that Thailand is an oligarchy, with various factions of the ruling elite - including the armed forces - making deals behind the scenes to reach an accommodation that protects entrenched interests. Another is the draconian lese majeste law.
Military coup-makers are granted amnesty by royal decree, and the lese majeste law prohibits debate on whether public opposition to such a decree could be interpreted as disrespectful to the monarch. Just how the armed forces, and the public, might react if the monarch refused to grant such an amnesty is equally blurred.
These factors explain why no government, and no court, has gathered the courage to force accountability on the Thai armed forces. But the international community, which has mainly prioritised stability, must also accept some blame.
Soon after the 1991 coup that overthrew prime minister Chatichai Choonhavan, I was asked to comment on the military's action, and my view was cynical.
I said it was likely that Mr Chatichai bought his parliamentary seat, bought his party leadership and bought his coalition partners to form the government. Much the same argument can be thrown at Thaksin, and if that fits your definition of democracy then the army overthrew a democratic government. But in my view they were equally illegitimate.
In retrospect, I was wrong. The electoral process helps Thailand edge towards democracy and the institutional underpinnings that support it, regardless of any flaws along the way. Military coups don't.