Thai citizens do live beyond the boundary of the City of Angels: Some commentaries of the complete TRCT report
On behalf of the volunteers who collected information on the impact of 2010 April-May crackdown in Ubon Ratchathani, I would like to make the following observations regarding the complete Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) report as follows.
The report centers around what transpired in Bangkok. Although there are some mentions of parallel rallies leading up to the violence in provinces, it gives little value to the lives of stakeholders in the incidents including the accused and affected individuals. In Ubon Ratchathani alone, 418 warrants were issued for which 88 civilians were taken in custody1. Twenty-one individuals were held in custody without bail from the day they were arrested to the day the verdict was handed down. A typical reason given by the court for not allowing bail was the claim that the individuals were a flight risk because the offenses they were charged with were serious. Most of these suspects were male adults with families to care for. Many of them were arrested soon after the May crackdown, leaving their families to suffer from the lack of financial support ever since. It took months for the TRCT staff to start their fieldwork to collect information about the families and those affected. In the entire report, there are only 11 references to the city of Ubon Ratchathani. Of those 11 mentions, four have to do with the City Hall incident with little information as far as specifics of the incident and related demonstrations are concerned. No case study is discussed. Nor is there any example of individuals who they call “victims” as appeared on page 332. It is worth-noting that the TRCT has created several subcommittees to carry out specific tasks for “truth-finding” purposes concerning individual incidents. Also created was the Fifth Subcommittee whose responsibility involved fact-finding about the Ubon Ratchathani City Hall incident. With the vast budget and human resources to collect field data, the TRCT should have reported their findings to the public in order to make it aware of the impacts of this political conflict. Instead, after 2 years of study, the report presents nothing but general, vague recommendations for reconciliation--something which can be found in a textbook or a theory-based academic paper. Missing are any recorded accounts and reports of facts regarding the events including prior incidents, the aftermath, as well as its consequences. This missing information would have earned the report a status of an academically-oriented source of knowledge instead of a collection of invalidated claims and the like.
Anonymization of Individuals
The report is not faithful to the spirit of “truth-finding”. Rather, it focuses on “reconciliation” although it is not clear what parties would reconcile as a result of this report. As they are, the recommendations in the report are not grounded on the principles of truth-finding--a prerequisite for a reconciliation process. Apparently, the absence of individuals’ names, which can be seen as an attempt to avoid further divide, backfires as it put these individuals in the background while the word “the City Hall arson” takes center stage. The report’s anonymization of these affected civilians makes them “nonexistent” in the public discourse. Severely affected individuals such as Mr. Tanoosilp Tanootong, Mr. Kamploy Namee, Mr. Ubon Saentaweesook, and Ms. Sininaat Chompoosapate and their stories do not earn a single reference in the report. Consider the tone of the following excerpt:
“there were rallies for more protesters and reports of the situation in Bangkok through pro-UDD local radio stations in provinces. It was found that there were UDD demonstrations in Bangkok and provinces along with Thaksin’s speeches via video link, which were characterized as provocative, and demanding the protesters to congregate at city halls should there be a crackdown on the Bangkok protest. On May 19, 2010 it was found that UDD protesters gathered on the city hall compounds in many provinces, and city hall arsons took place in Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, Ubon Ratchathani, and Mookdahan.”3
Although the language in the excerpt is ambiguous as to who was responsible for the arsons, juxtaposition of words in it could possibly lead the reader to believe that the protesters set the halls on fire. If the report had focused on the facts regarding the matter, the reader would have seen a picture of something other than the scorching flames rising from the burning state-owned buildings, a sight which affect laypeople’s sensibilities—laypeople who had no clue how all this had come about. Rather, the reader would have learned more details about what transpired that day. For instance, the reader would have been given an opportunity to put things in perspective, had it been mentioned in the report that someone took a photo of Mr. Namee as the incident was unfolding. This photo was later used to charge him with an involvement in the arson attack. As for Mr. Tanootong, he was arrested later. He claimed that he was working in his cassava plantation in a different district along with his wife when it took place. He later made repeated statements to the court that he was in the plantation about 100 kilometers away from the city of Ubon Ratchathani. Let us turn to Ms. Chompoosapate, she had a gunshot wound on her leg from a bullet reportedly coming from the direction of the second floor of the City Hall building.
These people now walk free. Ms. Chompoosapate carries with her a scar from that gunshot, which will later be discussed, and memories from being imprisoned in the state prison while her small children were left with relatives. Financial compensation from the Ministry of Human Resources does not erase the event from her memory. Mr. Namee has become permanently blind and hemiplegic due to a rupture of a brain aneurysm while he was being held in prison without bail during the long trial process; his prior attempts to post bail to seek proper medical treatment failed miserably. Mr Tanootong was eventually acquitted after being held, again without bail, for over a year. No one is taking responsibility for his time and part of his life lost in the prison. Mr. Saentaweesuk is currently taking medications for psychiatric problems—the condition he had before the incident which became aggravated while he was kept behind bars. With these problems he cannot take a normal job to earn a living. These individuals are only some of many who were severely affected by the incident. Presentation of broad, unbacked claims about protesters’ “likely” involvement in the problem without verification and depiction of resulting civilians’ plight not only underscores the report’s superficial take on alleged claims against the people, but it also reflects the report’s lack of efficiency in reporting facts regardless of whether the facts are for reconciliation or any other purpose.
Absence of the Role of Authorities
Citing the above excerpt from the report, it is clear that the report misses information regarding the role of local state authorities in provinces with serious incidents. There is no mention of how state agencies, be they the police, military, or governing bodies, treated or responded to the civilian protesters. For instance, the report does not state that gunshots were reportedly fired at the protesters from the direction of the City Hall building before the place was set on fire. One of the shots wounded Ms. Chompoosapate’s leg. The woman received hospital treatment, was later arrested despite her compromised health, charged, and detained in the Ubon Ratchathani prison for several months. Questions remain unanswered. Why was no fire engine sent to distinguish the fire? Where were state officials when the fire just started? This is such in stark contrast with footage televised both domestically and internationally of an aggressive army strike at the Ratchaprasong rally site.
There is nowhere in the report any mention of the government’s continual suppression in the aftermath. Also unmentioned are challenges with which the accused civilians had to face in the judicial process, both in principle and practice. The report leaves the impression that the City Hall arsons occurred as an isolating event, leaving no consequences.
Concluding Remark: Truth-finding “for” Reconciliation
As of October 13, 2012, of the original 21 civilians charged with cases related to the Ubon City Hall arson and related incidents, four individuals have been detained without bail, namely, Ms. Pattama Moonmin, Mr. Sanon Ketsuwan, Mr. Somsak Prasansap, and Mr. Teerawat Sajjasuwan. They were accused of setting the fire to the Hall and sentenced to life imprisonment. (Their) punishment was reduced to 33 years and 12 months (exactly how it is phrased). Nine who were acquitted and set free on August 24, 2011 are struggling to move on with their shattered lives. Some are still fighting other charges. Two questions: 1) Does this report show any attempt to seek the truth involving the arson? and 2) How can this report support a path to reconciliation as it both anonymizes affected civilians and fosters civilians’ image as perpetrators.
1 Summary of Arrest Warrants and Status Updates as of August 24, 2010.
2 As indicated in the TRCT announcements of members of case-specific truth-finding committees.
3 On page 33 of the complete TRCT report.
Saowanee T. Alexander is a lecturer at the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Ubon Ratchathani University