“The trigger gave; I felt the smooth underside of the butt; and there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, is where it all started. I shook off the sweat and the sun. I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day...”, Albert Camus, L'Étranger.
On March 17, Chaiyapoom Pasae, an ethnic Lahu human rights activist and folk singer, was shot dead by a soldier at a checkpoint in Chiang Mai. This followed the earlier, almost identical killing of a member of an ethnic Lisu, Abea Sea-moo, on February 15 in the same district. By definition an extrajudicial killing, and subject to ongoing police and military investigations to see if the soldier was justified by acting in self-defense, the likelihood of Chaiyapoom’s death on that day was likely exacerbated by three factors: Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s granting of police powers to the Royal Thai Army, Thailand’s extremely high levels of racial intolerance, and the country’s maintenance of the death penalty.
There is no doubt that there is a severe problem with drugs in Thailand’s mountainous North and that Lahu and Lisu communities are at the center of an international highway of traffickers operating between India and China. Drugs, mainly amphetamines, are manufactured in Myanmar then cross the border via Lahu and Lisu communities, to be sold into Thai networks and to foreigners, including tourists. At schools like Ban Payang School in Mae Na Taeng village in Mae Hong Son’s Pai district, children face the problems of drug trafficking and drug abuse, with side effects including teen pregnancies and the most serious problem being parents jailed on drug charges.
This sorry situation can result in half the children residing at their schools in some ethnic community areas. However, the quality of the schools’ infrastructures is poor, with insufficient classrooms and dilapidated buildings and a lack of equipment being major problems. As well as heavy investment in education, communities need to see state-sponsored occupational retraining to integrate people into society and provide them with jobs.
Providing the armed forces with police powers, as General Prayut Chan-o-cha did via Section 44 on March 30, 2016, has unfortunately transformed a military primarily trained to kill to defend the state from external attack into a force meant to maintain law and order. The professional mentalities of the military and the police are, or at least should be, different, with the former governed by the rules of war and codes of conduct and the latter by the rule of law, smoothly interfacing with the judiciary. Moreover, General Prayut’s order effectively states that all deputized military acting in good faith shall not face disciplinary measures, which would appear to provide both a means of sidestepping any responsibility for an extrajudicial killing and of encouraging a culture of impunity.
Unfortunately, a military mindset at its heart tends to emphasize one specific end– terminating a threat. As 3rd Region Army chief Vijak Sriribunsop said, "Firing one shot at him was reasonable. If it were me, I might have put the [machine gun] on automatic mode." It is this mindset which largely doomed the US occupation of Iraq and which continues to haunt the Thai military’s attempts to bring peace in the Deep South. It is rare indeed that a military force smoothly functions alongside or as a police force, exceptions being the US Marines in Iraq and British military presences in Malaysia and Northern Ireland. And, in the case of the Thai military, it is clear a mentality exists that can only blur the line between reactive, defensive killings and proactive killings of those deemed potential enemies of the state, a mentality which over the years has led to documented cases of approximately ten missing Lahu and dozens of others belonging to ethnic minority communities due to state-enforced disappearances. Within this context, the very term ‘war on drugs’ is problematic as it further legitimizes state killings. No need to look farther than President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines for an example.
The second complicating factor is that Thais are extremely racially intolerant of other ethnic groups. This intolerance stems from largely historical reasons, such as Chinese mass migration, a history of warfare with the Lao, Khmer, and Burmese, and propaganda generated before and during World War II against the French, British, and Americans. In three questions on the World Values Survey (WVS) on what kind of people Thais would not like to have as neighbors, Thais scored in the lowest ten percent for people of a different race, and immigrants and foreign workers, and in the lowest 20 percent for people who speak a different language. Further, in a fourth question, Thais scored in the lowest ten percent for whether they trust people of another nationality. Averaging the results of all four questions, Thais are the most racially intolerant people in the dataset. Worse, the average Thai has become significantly more racially intolerant between 2007, just after Thailand’s coup of 2006 initiated an authoritarian turn, and 2015.
The WVS data only covers approximately 58 states and territories. However, the picture worsens as the dataset expands. Combining WVS data with available data for additional countries from the European Values Survey, Thailand ranks 87th out of 89 for racial intolerance, with only Northern Cyprus, a heavily contested territory involving Greece and Turkey, and Libya, presently suffering rampant inter-ethnic warfare, being more racist and xenophobic. With racial intolerance being built into the mindset and values of some Thais due to historical factors and as a result of increasing authoritarianism, it is unsurprising that a soldier may be more likely to proactively kill an ethnic Lahu, often seen as not being ‘real Thais’.
The third complicating factor is Thailand’s continued reliance on the death penalty. The interactions between states’ maintaining the death penalty and extra-judicial killings is an ongoing area of research and concern, with there being a dedicated United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. Thailand is one of many Asian countries to maintain low judicial killings with high extra-judicial killings, notably in the case of over 2,500 victims in Thaksin’s ‘war on drugs’, dozens of Thai Malays in the Deep South, and dozens of other ethnic minorities, especially the Lahu and Karen uplands ethnic communities. Also, in the case of the May 2010 protests, where the main victims were also from ethnic minorities, predominantly Thai Lao. In a country with low rule of law which also maintains the death penalty, a soldier may be more likely to pull the trigger than in a country where there is no death penalty.
Thailand’s continuation of a mentality which can only encourage extrajudicial killings is now an anachronism. It is in the moral minority in maintaining the death penalty as a ‘deterrent’. The majority of the world’s countries (103), have, over time, abolished the death penalty. In a further six countries, the death penalty is only retained for exceptional circumstances, such as war crimes. In another 30 countries, the death penalty is retained in theory, but no executions have occurred within the last decade.
Thailand is therefore one of only 58 countries to retain the death penalty, most of which are majority Muslim countries. Only one Western country, the US, still practices capital punishment. In ASEAN, the majority Buddhist country of Cambodia and the majority Christian country of the Philippines have abolished the death penalty, and the majority Buddhist Myanmar and Laos effectively do not implement the death penalty. Only Indonesia and Singapore regularly implement the death penalty, with the state of Indonesia killing 14 people in 2016, all for drug trafficking, and Singapore killing four. Vietnam also probably regularly executes people, and there is little information from Malaysia.
Thailand occupies a grey area for the death penalty. Since 2009 the state has not legally executed anyone. According to a 2013 survey, a minority of Thais, 41%, want to retain execution, mainly as a deterrent against murder and rape, with 8% wanting it scrapped and the rest being undecided. Thais have historically also supported extrajudicial killings, with 90% supporting Thaksin’s war on drugs, though 40% also feared being falsely accused and 30% reported fearing being killed. This reflects a deep ambivalence towards state killings in some Asian countries, which, according to Professor Julia Eckert of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, is both a “symptom of state crisis” and “longed for as rescue from that very decay”, as in the Philippines.
This grey area within which extrajudicial killings take place also contrasts with the high religiosity which most Thais report in surveys, most noticeably the majority of Thais reporting being reasonably devout Buddhists. The position of the death penalty in Theravada Buddhism is contested, but on face value, the first precept would appear to dissuade killing. Thus, the Sutta to Cunda the Silversmith states, “And how is one made impure… by bodily action? There is the case where a certain person takes life, is a hunter, bloody-handed, devoted to killing and slaying, showing no mercy to living beings.” Furthermore, on state-backed executions, the Kutadanta Sutta argues against eliminating of a plague of robbers by executions and imprisonment, instead arguing for a wealth redistribution programme which would stimulate the economy and reduce social evils.
Similarly, the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta portrays a dynasty of kings ruling by justice, including the typical Buddhist trait of providing property to the needy. A king appears who does not act in this time-honored fashion, leading to poverty and theft. He tries to eliminate theft by executions. That, however, leads by example to an epidemic of violence and general social disintegration to a brutal and brutish state; all as a result of not giving property to the needy. A few people decide to abstain from taking life, and from this small core of pacifists human civilization is restored — culminating in the arrival of the Buddha Maitreya.
Buddhist ethics is fundamentally inimical to killing. It is grounded in the notion of a cosmic order that is disrupted by certain actions (killing, stealing etc.) and then repairs itself via the law of kamma. The very fabric of being is sustained by human beings, through acts of mutual generosity and care. Killing a human being rends the very fabric of being which, in due time, returns upon the killer in the process of healing itself. It may be that in executing a murderer the state fulfills the kamma of the murder. But in doing so it again rends the fabric of being and initiates a kammic dynamic that will be visited upon the killers of the killer. It is better that the murderer be imprisoned to prevent repeated killing. Kamma will contribute to his death and time in hell without any help.
This column questions who the killer is in an extrajudicial killing. Given the military mindset, the racial intolerance, and the maintenance of state executions, Thailand’s ‘war on drugs’ becomes problematic as any declaration of ‘war’ legitimizes proactive killings as alternative means of execution. The legislators and judges who maintain the death penalty, the soldier, the military, the police, and General Prayuth himself are all implicated. In a sense, we are all implicated, for under authoritarianism, extrajudicial killings occur in our name, without the moderating effects of democratic institutions. Ultimately, Thai society needs to follow the age-old advice of the sutras and implement a wealth redistribution programme to empower the uplands minorities in their fight against drugs and improve the likelihood of their coordinating with the state. It also needs to stop killing its ethnic minorities, reducing the rampant ethnocentrism and the right-wing authoritarianism that feeds it.
Note: A shorter version of this column, co-authored with Dr. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, appeared in the Bangkok Post of April 5, 2017, and is available at this link, where comments can be made.