What’s so controversial about the National Human Rights Commission’s report?

Last week Thailand's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) released a report on the "Demonstrations by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) during 12 March–19 May 2010" on their website. 
 
It took the NHRC three years to write the 88-page report, available only in (sloppy, ungrammatical) Thai here. But the release was a surprisingly quiet affair. There was no press conference on the release, and the NHRC’s website did nothing to draw attention to the report.
 
But the NHRC’s report received no quiet reaction. A group of some dozens Red Shirts protested at the NHRC office. The Student Federation of Thailand replicated the move. A Puea Thai Party spokesman called the NHRC “anti-humanitarian”. And soon an NHRC commissioner claimed that he was one of two commissioners who refused to vote to approve the report, but that the other five commissioners pushed it through.
 
 
But what’s so controversial about the NHRC’s report? Let’s look at its contents.
 
The NHRC’s report divides into 8 sections, dedicated to 8 topics (listed in the far-left column in the table). In each section, the NHRC comments on the actions of the UDD protesters, and those of the government and the security forces. 
 
Here is a summary of the NHRC's comments:

 

NHRC's comments on UDD protesters

NHRC's comments on the government & security personnel

1. "The situation before 7 April 2010"

 

"Some of the protesters moved to the area around Ratchaprasong intersection [...], affecting important businesses as well as causing troubles, which prevented people from working and living normally. This was an exercise of freedom which affected the rights and freedom of others. This event later led to the government's declaration of a state of emergency." (Page 30)

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2.1 "Abhisit Vejjajiva (then-PM)'s declaring the state of emergency & creating the  CRES on 7 April 2010"

 

"There were video recordings which showed that speeches by UDD leaders were imflammatory and incited violence continuously in the land." (Page 35)

 

"The measures imposed to restrict the rights and freedom were permitted by the law, and were imposed to protect the rights and freedom of the general public during a time of unrest. So, in the circumstance, they were necessary and appropriate." (Page 38)

 

2.2 "The CRES's closure of People's Channel (PTV)"

 

"Video recordings showed that PTV broadcast speeches by UDD leaders from the protest site. Several of the speeches were inflammatory and incited violence and chaos, which threatened national security at a time when chaos and unrest had been happening continuously. This constituted 'making an appearance to the public by words, writings or any other means which is not an act within the purpose of the Constitution or for expressing an honest opinion or criticism in order to raise unrest and disaffection amongst the people in a manner likely to cause disturbance in the country', which is against Article 116 of the Criminal Code." (Page 40)

 

 

"[The closure of PTV] was done in accordance with the law, and was done to keep peace during a time of unrest. Furthermore, when the intention of the closure is taken into account, the closure benefited the public more than it affected those whose rights and freedom were restricted. So, it was appropriate in the circumstance. (Page 40)

 

2.3 "The CRES's closure of print media and websites"

"Several of the websites closed down contained information that could affect national security, but also various other information which had nothing to do with forbidden information." (Page 43)

(The report did not mention print media.)

"The measures imposed by the government to stop the spread of information and news on the internet were in accordance with the law. However, they were an excessive and unnecessary restriction of the freedom of expression." (Page 43)

 

3. "The UDD's demonstration and clash with the security forces on 10 April 2010"

"The protesters used children and women as human shields. They used sharpened sticks, paving bricks, and slingshots with screws as bullets. Some witneesses also confirmed that some protesters used guns to resist the security forces' operation, and that there were a group of men in black with weapons ready to cause violence, who mixed among protesters and who might cause loss of lives and properties for security officers and the general public." (Page 47)

"Military officers [...] needed to protect themselves and others from the approaching severe harm, which might cause death or injuries, and could not have used any other means of protection." (Page 47)

 

"The acts [of the security forces] caused many deaths and injuries. So, the security forces' actions were careless and miscalculated." (Page 48) 

 

 

"The government must take responsibility for the damage caused by the lack of care, as well as helping and issuing reasonable compensations for the victims." (Page 48)

4. "The case of those injured or killed by the M79 grenade at Saladaeng intersection on 22 April 2010"

 

"The UDD's demonstration had continuously caused violence, injuries and loss of lives and properties." (Page 52)

 

"The UDD's demonstration in this circumstance [...] went beyond what the Consittution allowed, and could not be called a peaceful, unarmed protest. [...] It contained actions which constituted human rights violations against those uninvolved." (Pages 52-53)

"The government and the police ignored acts that violated human rights. The government should have done more to protect the rights of those who were not involved in the protest." (Page 53)

 

5. "The case of those injured or killed at the National Memorial on 28 April 2010"

"The results of the clash between UDD protesters and security forces in the mentioned event - in particular, the death of one military officer by gun shot and the injuries of some civilians and military officers - suggest that there were human rights violations against ordinary people, the security forces, and those who were killed." (Page 56)

"The acts of the government were done out of the intention to protect people's convenience in using public space, and to keep peace at a time when a state of emergency had been declared. A state of emergency is an exceptional time when the government may restrict the rights and freedom specified in the Constitution." (Page 55)

 

6. "The UDD's demonstration around Chulalongkorn hospital & the Thai Red Cross Society headquarters, and the UDD's search inside Chulalongkorn hospital on 29 April 2010"

 

"The UDD's demonstration in the area surrounding Chulalongkorn hospital and the Thai Red Cross Society headquarters, and the UDD's search inside Chulalongkorn hospital, [...] were violations of human rights. They should also be investigated and those involved should be criminally prosecuted." (Page 61)

 

"The government allowed the protest to continue to the point where the noise pollution disturbed the patients in the hospital's wing on Ratchadamri Road. The government let the protesters set up checkpoints using tyres and bamboos, which blocked entrances to and exits from the hospital. The government also let the protesters to check the bags of those entering and exiting the hospital, as well as hold meetings in the Por-Bor-Ror Building at night. Thus, it can be said that the government neglect to prevent acts that violated human rights." (Page 60)

7. "The riot, the clash, and the vandalism against public and private properties during 13-19 May 2010"

"The demonstration at the aforementioned time period affected the health, the jobs, and properties of other people. Therefore, the UDD's exercise of freedom did not conform to the Constitution." (Page 70)

 

"The acts of torching buildings and properties inspired the torching of city halls in several provinces. [...] These constituted violations of the Criminal Code article that prohibits any arson attack on public or private properties. Those acts, therefore, are violations against other people's properties, which are violations of human rights." (Page 72)

"There were 404 people injured and 51 dead. [...] There is no evidence yet of who caused the deaths and the injuries, nor evidence of who the armed men hidden among protesters were. [But] it is possible that some [of the deaths and injuries] were also caused by members of the security forces who used weapons. So the government has the duty to issue compensation for the families of the dead and the injured." (Page 71)

 

8. "The case of those injured or killed around Wat Pathum Wanaram temple after the UDD called off the demonstration on 19 May 2010"

 

"No witness could state clearly that those who died died outside the temple: some died in front of the temple; some could not be determined as to the places of their deaths. But all the 6 bodies were moved inside the temple after their deaths." (Page 76)

 

"It can probably be concluded that they were shot at from a distance further than their arm lengths. But it could not be known how far that distance was." (Page 76)

 

"There were a group of armed individuals who ran into Wat Pathum Wanaram temple to hide, and then shoot at the security forces. So the security forces had to protect themselves." (Page 75)

 

"The measures used by the government were necessary and in accordance with the law. But in practice, the damage has been done, and that damage was caused by a chaotic exchange of gun shots between the security forces and the armed men who hid among the protesters. So part of the damage must have also been caused by members of the security forces." (Page 76)

 
So you can see why the Red Shirts would be frustrated by the report.  The NHRC seems desperate to justify almost everything that the government and the security forces did. Sombat Boon-ngarmanong, a Red Shirt activist, said “I felt like I was reading a report written by the CRES itself”. 
 
The NHRC also uses some euphemisms that misrepresent important events. The NHRC adopts the CRES’s terms like “tightening the grip on the area” (which means encircling the protesters and advancing on them using live bullets) and “reclaim the area” (which means cracking down on the protesters). The May protest crackdown during 13-19 May is called “the riot, the clash, and the vandalism against public and private properties during 13-19 May 2010”.
 
But the worst thing about the report does not lie in what the NHRC’s report says, but in what it omits. The report neglects to mention some crucial facts – for example, the fact that nearly all of the protesters killed had no weapons, and most were killed by single shots into the head or into crucial points on the upper body.
 
While the NHRC indulges in describing the deaths and injuries of soliders and detailing how the protesters “caused troubles”, the NHRC avoids discussing the protesters’ deaths in any detail. The 11 civilian deaths on 15 May 2010 are glossed over in only one paragraph. The 8 civilian deaths on 16 May, likewise, are discussed in one paragraph. And the 19 civilian deaths on 19 May are discussed in only five paragraphs. By contrast, the NHRC spends 5 pages discussing the UDD’s unwarranted search of Chulalongkorn hospital.
 
Given all the reasons mentioned here, there is little wonder why the NHRC’s report is so controversial. But controversy in itself is not something bad. A human rights commission that has not done anything controversial has not done anything worthwhile. 
 
The real problem with the NHRC’s report is not that it is controversial, but that it is dishonest.
 

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Prach Panchakunathorn is a journalist based in Bangkok. He holds a master's degree in Philosophy from Cambridge University, and a BA in Philosophy, Politics & Economics from Oxford University.

*Off the Press is a new collective column where young journalists reporting on Thailand will take turns sharing their thoughts on current affairs.