Thongchai Winichakul's letter to the International Criminal Court
Thongchai Winichakul, former student leader in 1976 and currently professor at the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, wrote a letter to the International Criminal Court on 24 May, regarding Thailand's political turmoil in 2010. He also visited the ICC in the Hague with the Red Shirt delegation this week.
24 May 2012
International Criminal Court (ICC)
Re: Request to the ICC to help bring justice to victims of the 2010 bloodshed in Thailand
Dear Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court,
I write to you as a citizen of Thailand, as a former political prisoner who survived the 1976massacre in Bangkok, and as an expert on Thailand, currently Professor of History atUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, who has studied the country’s history and itsdemocratization process for thirty years. Among the subjects I study include the atrocities in1973, 1976, and 1992, and the culture of impunity in Thailand. I have followed the politicalsituation in Thailand closely since the coup in 2006, especially the bloodshed in April-May2010 and its aftermath. Like all previous killings, it is likely that the military and those whogave orders would get impunity again while there will be no justice for the victims as ever. Iwould like to request that the ICC can help bring the end to this repeated impunity – therebythe repeated killings of civilians -- by investigating into the 2010 killings and bringing thecase to the International Criminal Court.
Please allow me to describe a history of institutional impunity in Thailand.
In October 1973, the popular uprising put an end to the military dictatorship that had ruledthe country for three decades. Seventy two people died and thousands injured. Amidst theeuphoria for the dawn of democracy, an amnesty was declared by the new government to allthe police and military personnel for the sake of social and political harmony in the country.The amnesty also meant there was no investigation into the incident.
The young democracy lasted only for three years when the military returned to power inOctober 1976. The coup took place on the same day after a massacre of students and peoplewho had gathered at a university campus to oppose the military plot for the return of dictatorship. About forty people died and hundreds injured but how they got killed wasindescribably heinous. Apart from being killed by heavy weapons, some were burnt alive,raped, and hanged, then their dead body beaten up or dragged across a soccer field. All of these happened in public to hundreds of spectators. More than three thousands survivors were put in jail for a few days to five months, and nineteen students (including myself) for twoyears. In 1978, allegedly for reconciliation, an amnesty bill was passed to absolve allwrongdoings that were related to the massacre. The student prisoners were released. The perpetrators were absolved from crimes as if the massacre never took place. No investigationinto the incident. In fact for the reconciliation too, the public was encouraged to forget, to letgo of the memory of it. The incident was not mentioned anywhere in pubic for yearsafterward and never in the state-controlled history textbooks up to now. Meanwhile, thanks tothe impunity, many powerful people who involved in the massacre continued enjoying their privileges for years afterward. Some of them took part in another political massacre again in1992 because they knew that they would not be brought to justice.
Democratization in Thailand was up and down throughout the 1980s. The more open anddemocratic period returned in 1988 but it was, as before, short lived. In 1991 the militarydictatorship returned again. This time, however, it did not last long, as a popular uprisingtook place again in 1992. More than seventy people died during a few days of fighting duringwhich soldiers roamed the streets to shoot people who opposed the regime. The militarygovernment finally gave in and retreated. But they did so after absolving themselves of anycrimes by another amnesty bill. The public demanded an investigation into the incident,nevertheless, despite the lack of authority even to force military commanders to testify, letalone to bring the wrongdoers to justice. Then, as if it was not a serious matter, the report of the investigation released many years afterward showed careless investigation and lack of efforts even to find out some basic facts. Worst of all, the report that was released to the public was heavily censored with all names and important information blackened out to theextent that the report was not intelligible. Impunity breeds total disregard to the public.
Throughout these repeated tragedies, the justice system in Thailand never played anindependent role to uphold justice. Thai judicial system takes as a matter of fact that amilitary coup, if successful, is valid. The system serves the power, regardless of howlegitimately they come to power. Accordingly, the judiciary also accepts that all the ordersand bills enacted by an oligarchy in power are valid, including the absolution of militaryleaders themselves from any wrongdoing like overthrowing a democratic regime and tearingdown the democratic constitution. Also taken as legally valid by the Thai judiciary were themilitary orders for a number of executions without trial, arrests and imprisonment with or without charge, and numerous extra-judicial operations. So were the amnesty bills for thecrimes in 1973, 1976 and 1992. It is therefore impossible in Thailand to bring those who wereresponsible for the atrocities to justice, thanks to the complicity of the judiciary. Impunity for the powerful elites is a cultural, institutional, and legal. Justice is non-existent for the victimsof those tragedies. Without justice, democracy is a theatrical farce.
Impunity was definitely a factor why the massacre in April-May 2010 took place again. The political and military leaders in that incident had no concern at all that they would have toface justice afterward. They made false accusations and fabricated evidence as the pretexts tokillings. Totally disregarding the international norms of crowd control, they used enormouslyexcessive violence and cruel methods to civilians, including heavy weapons, liveammunitions, snipers, and explosives. They misinformed, misled, and lied to the publicsystematically to create a climate of fear and to justify the killings. Even medical personnelwere obstructed, shot at and eventually killed as well. More than 90 people died andthousands injured. Many more were arrested and treated inhumanly. The evidence of thoseinhuman actions is abundant, as international and domestic journalists brought to public andthe public themselves shared all over the social media. But the political and military elitesoften dismissed those evidence and criticism, and often slighted them with a joke or sarcasminstead of reasons, consideration, or explanations. They were certainly aware of the precedent; impunity was a norm, a culture of power. It breeds inhumane indecency.
This time, however, the victims and the public have changed. Unlike the aftermath of previous atrocities, they have demanded a thorough investigation and have refused anamnesty that would absolve the crimes. They have voiced that they will not toleratereconciliation without truth and justice. Unfortunately the justice system – from the police tothe prosecutor and the judiciary—have been the obstructions to truth and justice. Politicalleaders either had their hands in the atrocity or lack the courage to uphold justice in order toend this cultural and institutional impunity. They are trying to sweep the crimes under the rugagain in the name of harmony, reconciliation and the need to moving on.
If impunity prevails again, how many more massacres before a single life is recognized asinviolable? How much more cruelty to civilians before every citizen can be equal in the land?How much more truth and justice to be sacrificed for justice to prevail and truth be toldwithout fear?
The ICC can help end this culture of impunity. I understand that there is a case being proposed to the ICC Prosecutor to consider the April-May 2010 massacre in Thailand. I hopeyou take it seriously. If there is ground for investigation or for the court to proceed, I trustthat the ICC would do everything possible to bring justice to the victims and to people in acountry where the justice system is incapable of doing so. At the least, the ICC’s action cancontribute significantly as a major step toward the end of it in the future.
In the early 1990s, in the wake of the 1992 massacre but before the ICC was established, Itried to find a way to bring the 1976 case to an international body. I learned with gravedisappointment that it was not possible for two reasons. First, legally, at the time there was nointernational body with jurisdiction to consider the case. Second, diplomatically Thailand wasnot a hot spot for international concern. Indeed Thailand has enjoyed a good reputation sothat other countries are willing to let Thailand to rectify its own problems. Besides, thenumber of loss in those massacres was relatively small. I trust that for the ICC, justice is notless significant by the country’s international stature or the number of casualty. Impunity is probably stronger in a country like Thailand because the world takes for granted that it is nothot spot for concern, so willingly turns their eye away. Impunity also hides better in a countrylike Thailand because the crimes were relatively smaller, compared to genocides or largescale atrocity. Consequently, it becomes institutionalized. Thus the crimes are repeated andthe number of victims accrues. Silence, fear, and forgetting continue.
Please – I beg -- take necessary efforts to help end the impunity in Thailand.
Thongchai Winichakul, PhD
Professor of History