A little over a week ago, the Bangkok Post reported that a special inquiry unit under Thailand’s Justice Ministry had asked the public prosecutor to lodge charges against six police officers for allegedly torturing a man in their custody.
The police in Ayutthaya, near Bangkok, hooded Ekkawat Srimanta and beat him all over his body to force him to confess to a robbery that he did not commit. Then they repeatedly electrocuted his genitals and groin.
Unlike many victims of police torture in Thailand, Ekkawat survived. And unlike most, he was released shortly afterward and admitted to hospital. The next day, photographs of his damaged body were published in major dailies. Senior officers rushed to his bedside, pretended that they cared if he lived or died, and made phony promises to look into things.
All that was five years ago. What happened since demonstrates the utter failure not only of the government of Thailand but also of its society to come to terms with the blight of torture, or do anything much about it.
Many groups and individuals got involved in Ekkawat’s case. Some invited him to speak at fancy seminars in swank hotels, where the staff of international agencies nodded seriously and bureaucrats made polite sounds about how concerned they were.
Meanwhile, more stories of police torture in Ayutthaya emerged. Some victims had nothing to show of their ordeals because they had been electrocuted through bags of ice. Like Ekkawat, they were young, poor men, a few with criminal records. But as their cases didn’t get into the national newspapers, they didn’t attract any official interest. Neither did Ekkawat, as everyone soon lost interest in his case – except for the torturers themselves, who bided their time.
A year after the incident, in November, 2005, Ekkawat quietly withdrew a lawsuit that he had lodged against the police – so quietly that he didn’t even tell his lawyer – and moved somewhere else. Alone and unprotected, he had been an easy target for the usual mixture of threats and offers of money to stop complaining and just go away.
Now the Department of Special Investigation has triumphantly declared that after five short years it has forwarded the case files to the prosecutor. Perhaps the prosecutor will even get it into court before another five are out. But supposing that happens, will the victim even be willing to testify? What believable reassurances for his safety can the authorities offer him?
And what charges might be lodged against the accused? There is nothing in the criminal code or any other law to penalize state officers for electrocuting detainees’ genitalia. Although Thailand has joined the United Nations Convention against Torture, it has not fulfilled any of its duties under the charter to prohibit torture and punish offenders by making it a specific offence carrying stiff penalties.
The lack of witness and victim protection, absence of a distinct law or specialized agency to investigate and prosecute torture, and unwillingness of the government to take on the police force are all heavy obstacles to protecting the rights of victims like Ekkawat.
But the biggest obstacle is not legal or institutional. It is cultural. It is the attitude that prevails in virtually all quarters that there is something shameful in talking too publicly about torture. This attitude is common to all societies where torture is prevalent. But in Thailand it is also connected to a more general discouragement of open debate on many serious matters of national importance.
The notion that there is nothing to be achieved from too much openness – and, on the contrary, that to talk directly about serious difficulties may be harmful to the nation – has long been cultivated and disseminated to protect elite interests in Thailand. With them go the interests of the police.
When this notion invades the work of persons documenting human rights abuses, it forces them into nasty compromises with themselves and with others, which are sometimes justified on the basis that without them nothing could be done at all.
One effect of such compromises is that even among rights defenders torture is characterized as a peculiarity of counterinsurgency in the southern provinces – and the pastime of a few stressed-out, badly paid, low-ranking cops elsewhere – rather than acknowledged as a routine part of criminal inquiry.
Torture is reduced in scale and significance to make it manageable, so it can be discussed in the refined surroundings of five-star hotels in Bangkok, rather than exposed for the big dirty secret that it is through constant talk and public lobbying.
Another effect is that awareness and pressure from abroad are far less than is needed to make a change in Thailand. Some advocates of criminalizing torture are shamed into thinking that they might embarrass the country if they talk too honestly. Others feel that international agencies shouldn’t be overburdened with cases of abuse, and should just be told what they want to hear.
The obstacles to Ekkawat Srimanta getting justice have been, and remain, enormous. Despite the huge publicity surrounding his case and the support he received, the systemic impunity enjoyed by Thai police makes it unlikely he will ever see them punished.
Breaking this impunity – not only in his case but in all torture cases – ultimately depends upon the rest of society. Until the attitudes that protect torturers and keep their crimes a dirty secret are heavily and constantly challenged, until Thailand “un-censors” itself, there will be no chance for meaningful reforms to support victims.
(To mark the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the Asian Human Rights Commission will hold a live Internet broadcast with a regional exchange on torture, starting from 4GMT—12 midday Hong Kong time—on Friday, 26 June 2009. For details and the web link, please go to: http://www.ahrchk.net/pr/mainfile.php/2009mr/653.)
(Awzar Thi is the pen name of a member of the Asian Human Rights Commission with over 15 years of experience as an advocate of human rights and the rule of law in Thailand and Burma. His Rule of Lords blog can be read at http://ratchasima.net)