Forget him not: 1 year without truth in the death of young Lahu activist

March 17th marked the first anniversary of the death of the young Lahu activist, Chaiyaphum ‘Cha-ou’ Pasae. He was shot dead by a soldier under suspicious circumstances. The military claimed the shooting was in self-defence, but have not provided any evidence to the public. Investigation procedures in the inquest, where evidence is accessible only to the authorities, cast doubt on the effectiveness of the Thai judicial system to bring to light truth and justice.
The suspicious murder of the famous minority rights activist once again reflects the oppression experienced by ethnic minorities in Thailand, especially in the areas bordering Myanmar, where they are marginalised, face discrimination and are often indiscriminately branded by the authorities as involved in drug smuggling.
Chaiyaphum was shot dead by a soldier who claimed that the killing was necessary because he attempted to throw a hand grenade.
The army also accused the activist of smuggling illicit drugs. The army claimed that the soldiers had to open fire as Chaiyaphum attempted to throw a hand grenade at them at a checkpoint.
To mark the first anniversary of the death of a Lahu hero, Prachatai’s Yiamyut Sutthichaya investigated the suspicious circumstances of the murder and how the death of the young activist has affected his family.
Prachatai talked to Chaiyaphum’s lawyer about his thoughts on the death probe and his doubts about the investigation process, and to Chaiyaphum’s adopted brother about his memories of Chaiyaphum and how his death threw his family and community into a bottomless pit of despair.

Lawyer says Chaiyaphum’s case reflects discrimination against ethnic minorities

Chaiyaphum was killed on 17 March at a checkpoint in Mueang Na Subdistrict, Chiang Dao District, Chiang Mai Province. Soldiers at the checkpoint claim that they found amphetamines in the car that Chaiyaphum was travelling in and that he resisted arrest by pulling out a knife before running into the bushes with a grenade in his hand. The authorities, therefore, had no choice but to shoot him, they claimed.
However, an eyewitness at the checkpoint gave an interview to Thai PBS that Chaiyaphum was dragged from the car, beaten and summarily shot dead.
“A lot of villagers saw that he was dragged from his car. He was beaten and his face was stepped on. Two warning shots were fired. When he got free from the soldiers beating him, he ran off. When he ran off, they shot him dead. They did not let villagers get near the scene,” one of the eyewitnesses said.
Pongsanai Sangtala, the driver and also a friend of Chaiyaphum, was arrested and accused of drug smuggling. He has been released as a free man as the public prosecutor decided not to indict him on the drugs charge. He still has to appear before the court as a witness in the inquest of his friend.
The forensic evidence showed that Chaiyaphum died of a gunshot wound to the chest from an M16 assault rifle.
After the killing, many human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and ethnic minority groups, demanded that government be transparent and more serious in the investigation of his death.
Reactions from the military and the NCPO junta did nothing but spur tremendous waves of doubt and dissent. Lt Gen Wichak Siribansop, commander of the 3rd Army Area in charge of the region, said that he has seen the CCTV footage and found that the soldiers were protecting themselves from danger as Chaiyaphum resisted the regular check-point and tried to throw a grenade but it was accidentally fatal.
“It was a normal decision of the soldier. If it were me there, I might shoot in automatic mode.” These words caused a huge backlash after they were disseminated in the media.
Wichak said that the CCTV footage would not be shown publicly as it will be part of the evidence in court.
Gen Pravit Wongsuwan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, commented on Wichak’s reckless cowboy-like opinion: “He’s been through many fights. I don’t know. Different people have different ideas. If he wants to submit a petition to the Office of the Auditor General to audit the 3rd Army Area, he can do so.”
Villagers in Kong Pak Ping village where Chaiyaphum and his family lived received several threats after Chaiyaphum’s death. Maitri Chamroensukskul, Chaiyaphum’s adopted elder brother, found a bullet placed in front of his house last April. There were also people who came and took photos of his house.
Regarding the accusation that Chaiyaphum was smuggling drugs, soldiers went to search Chaiyaphum’s house on the same day. Later on, police arrested Chaiyaphum’s sister-in-law, Chantana Pasae, and Maitri’s sister-in-law, Nawa Ja-eu, in May last year, claiming that they were the ones who sent Chaiyaphum the drugs before he was killed.
Sumitchai Hattasan, one of the lawyers representing Chaiyaphum, said that there is an atmosphere of intimidation in the area. Eyewitnesses who are summoned to testify are afraid of speaking against state officials.
According to Sumitchai, the forensic results presented during the inquest on March 14 indicated that they did not find Chaiyaphum’s fingerprints on the knife that the soldiers accused him of using to fend them off. Reports also show that one of the many people whose DNA was found on the body of the grenade (not the pin) was Chaiyaphum.
The fear of state officials among the Lahu people dates back a couple of decades. Sila Jahae, President of the Lahu Association, told Prachatai that conflicts between the Lahu and police officers and the military erupt from time to time. In the farming season, the Lahu would be charged with farming in reserved forests or national parks. Sometimes Lahu were beaten by soldiers so badly that they had to go to hospital.
Sila said that he did not rely on soldiers and forestry officials as they caused more problems than they solved.
The Lahu people mostly live in districts bordering Myanmar in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces, and have been living in a climate of fear since the Thaksin Shinawatra administration announced the War on Drugs policy in 2003. State authorities believe that the border districts are part of a drug trafficking route from Wa State in Myanmar and that some hill tribe people are involved.
After the War on Drugs was concluded at the end of 2003, the practice of torture, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances has continued until today. State officials may arrive at the door, claiming to search for illegal goods and order a search without a court warrant, or with a fake warrant, taking valuables and vehicles from the house and detaining the person at an unknown, unofficial place.
Sila is one who was detained in a hole dug for detention in a ranger camp.
“It’s a custom of state officials to capture villagers and beat them in front of other villagers,” the President of the Lahu Association told Prachatai.

Problematic ‘Closed’ Circuit Television is yet (never) to be seen.

As the claims of eyewitnesses and soldiers differ over this mysterious death, many organisations and individuals believe that the military-owned CCTV footage at the checkpoint is the key evidence for what happened at Rin Luang checkpoint.
Until now, only Lt Gen Wichak and Gen Pravit have claimed to have seen the footage. According to Sumitchai, the military sent the hard disk and the recording device to the police investigator in April last year instead of sending a copy on CD. Such an action provokes doubt in society once again. Pol Col Mongkol Sampawapol, Chief of Chiang Mai Police Station said that having the entire hard disk caused a problem for the police because they could be blamed if they opened the hard disk and found no footage. So the hard disk was sealed with signed duct tape and sent to the Central Police Forensic Science Division.
On 14 March 2018, Sumitchai informed Prachatai that the Central Police Forensic Science Division report had been presented during the inquest. It reported that the footage from 17 March 2017 was not found on a hard disk. Sumitchai said that the forensic officer confirmed that the footage recording machine was working properly.
The footage was never shown in the court despite waves of pressure asking to see it. Sumitchai asked for the court’s approval to summon the footage from the military but this was rejected, claiming that the existing witnesses and evidence are enough for the court to finish the inquest.
The mysterious loss of footage and the court decision make it doubtful that the footage of the death will ever be shown to the public. Is it possible that somebody erased the footage? Did the two people who claimed that they saw the footage lie?

Lesson learnt: More open investigation as a tool to check state use of force

Sumitchai said the investigation process is problematic for the victims and the relatives of the dead. The Chaiyaphum case shows that the state grants its officials the power to kill. Thus, the investigation should be conducted in a fairer manner for the victims as a part of checking and balancing the state’s use of force.
“Extraordinary measures should be methods that the state should not use, that is, use only as necessary. For what happened that day when someone resisted and ran away, there are many were ways to arrest him. You can follow him and arrest him later or issue an arrest warrant. We are trying to say that these extraordinary measures are a matter of violating the right to life and person of the people, an international principle. Extraordinary measures can be used when there is no alternative in dealing with the case, for example, if someone resists and uses force, and we have no alternative and have to protect ourselves. The soldiers say that they were trying to protect themselves because they say that Chaiyaphum had a grenade, but from the facts that we have, the grenade pin was not even pulled out. Many things are a mystery about whether Chaiyaphum had a grenade or not, because a witness said that when Chaiyaphum ran away, he did not see him holding anything. And where did the grenade come from? The CCTV footage has not been revealed. The evidence is unclear.
“In a case like this, all evidence must be revealed especially to the dead person’s relatives who have a right to this evidence. But now everything is still unclear. It seems that the officials are being protected. From what we have seen, 2-3 days after the incident people came out to give interviews. The people who are looking for the truth do not easily dare to speak the truth as they are afraid when senior people in the country say that the military was right.”
Thai society has learnt a lot from this incident. But the system has not changed. The process of finding evidence is still the same which makes access to the judicial process a problem. All evidence is a secret held by the investigators. By global principles, evidence must be revealed to the injured parties or the relatives of the dead. But here requests to see the CCTV footage are denied. In our system, the collection of evidence by the investigators becomes a secret. Litigants or the injured parties cannot access it. They will access it when it reaches the court, Sumitchai said.
The brother’s voice: Community and family suffer as officers become more engaged
Maitri, who now stays in a safe house, said that the family’s life is harder and the community was divided by fear after Chaiyaphum’s death. He also cited some memories of his dead brother, as he still missed him.
“The family is in a bad way with many troubles. I haven’t gone home at all. It’s difficult for Chaiyaphum’s mother because there is another younger brother. When Chaiyaphum died, there was no one to look after him.”
“His aunt is in prison on a drugs charge.
“Every day I still miss him. When he died, many things changed in the community and his family, especially his family. His younger brother (Chanon Pasae) has not studied any more. He was a hard-working person, and liked helping others. He could not keep still, he would have to do this and that, or help this or that person. Now he would go to set up solar cells in this house and now take a job at that house.
“Our memories of Chaiyaphum are good things. Chaiyaphum was a hard-working, responsible kid. He was one person with a heart. He sacrificed himself for his friends, his family and everyone. When we work, we think of him. When there are activities, we see him get up on stage to speak and sing. Now we will not hear his music and guitar, not hear him talk about rights. We will hear just his song that said that people without citizenship are not nobodies.
“One set will say they are a group that says we should not oppose state officials. Another sees that the officials went too far. The villagers are not at peace. They are divided into different parties and different sets. The community is in turmoil. Some people in the community say that because of Chaiyaphum, it’s caused trouble. State officials and the military visit often. Some people who don’t have identity cards, when the officials come, are afraid.
“Officials tried to find clothes and blankets to distribute. The villagers did not show up. They forced Chaiyaphum’s mother to take some blankets. When she did not turn up, they went to her house. That scared the villagers.”
Maitri is also a victim of the state’s use of violence against ethnic people. In 2007, he was sued by a military officer under the Computer Crime Act because he published stories of soldiers slapping villagers at Kong Pak Ping village in the face and video footage of villagers arguing with soldiers. The case was dropped nine years later.
Right now there is no one coming to threaten him but if he goes home, there may be, because right now he is in hiding in the city and doesn’t go home
Maitri expressed the hardship of marginalised people when they try to challenge state power.
“Power is something necessary, but I do not want to see the use of power to harass others in our country.”
“When Chaiyaphum was killed, I thought the police would help us, but they did not. It turned out that every official tried to protect themselves, right? Even though the truth could very easily be cleared up by releasing the CCTV footage, they claim that there was no footage. I find that unacceptable.”
“I believe that if Chaiyaphum was the son of somebody rich he would not be dead. I see many news reports of soldiers beaten or killed and it’s taken seriously and in the end it is settled with compensation. But Chaiyaphum’s case was discussed and supported by the little people, the minority in society. Their activities are a wave that will not reach justice.
“The elite must not protect their subordinates too much and must look on Chaiyaphum as their son too because he also lived in Thailand. The military’s duty is to protect everyone in Thailand, not only the military itself.
“Every day I am really afraid, but I will not turn back.” Maitri said.
Maitri is the founder of the Save Lahu Youth Group (Klum Yaowachon Rak Lahu), that engages with ethnic kids and youths to keep them away from drugs.
The inquest is still in process in its second phase. This death once again brings out the long-standing dispute between ethnic minorities and state officials especially the military.
It is important for society to keep following how the trial turns out. This case will be one of the milestones for the Thai judicial system in showing how problematic the investigation system is and how necessary reform is to make the system more transparent and reliable. Sad but true, the dead are long gone from this realm but the survivors still live on with an antiquated and unfair system.