Explaining Thailand to the world
28 March 2005
Thailand's new foreign minister says his priority is to “explain” to the international community about incidents like Krue Se and Tak Bai, and thus overcome the country's bad image on human rights.
Around New Year, Chang Noi watched one of the video CDs of the Tak Bai incident. The showing took place outside Thailand, with an audience of teachers and students mostly from Asian countries ranging from India to Japan. This video compilation began inside the Tak Bai police station at the point when the security forces believed they were coming under fire. It had long sequences showing the arrested demonstrators being tied up, dragged along the ground, kicked and beaten, made to crawl, struggling to avoid drowning in the river, and being thrown on trucks. It ended with a group of senators visiting a detention centre. The footage clearly came from several different cameramen, and had been spliced together without much editing. The picture quality was often poor, but the overall story was very clear.
At the end of the one-hour showing, there was first a stunned silence, and then a lively discussion. Thai and non-Thai, Muslim and non-Muslim, all had something to say.
One historian who studies Malaysia told the group that this incident was very similar to others in the past. He knew of documents going back to the 1840s when Siam faced one of the many revolts provoked by its attempt to control the Malay states in the mid-peninsula. People had been arrested, maltreated, and died in custody in large numbers. Such incidents happened again around 1900, and perhaps later also. He asked whether the Thai state had any long-run policy to treat people from this area in this way. If not, why did such incidents seem to recur?
Another Asian member of the audience asked about the treatment of those arrested. Being forced to crawl along the ground with hands tied behind the back, or being put in the river and having to struggle to avoid drowning, probably qualified as torture. This obviously did not happen casually but was very organised and must have been ordered by somebody. Who gave the orders? How high up? Would anyone be held responsible?
One of the few non-Asians in the audience then made a comment. He had expected to see pictures of the security forces trying to disperse a demonstration. Instead the operation was much more like an attack – a military charge. The demonstration was completely surrounded. They could not “disperse” because there was no way for them to run away. Were the security personnel intent on capturing as many of the demonstrators as possible? Are demonstrators presumed to be criminals?
This prompted comment from an Asian political scientist who has studied security forces throughout the region. He was simply dumbfounded at the crude tactics of the security forces. They did not seem to have any riot control equipment. They were all carrying weapons with live ammunition – with the inevitable results.
In countries like Philippines and Indonesia, where the security forces often had to deal with insurgents or demonstrators in remote areas, they had equipped themselves appropriately, and learned tactics of riot control which did not provoke violence. In places like Korea, where there were often demonstrations by students and workers in city locations, again the security forces had studied how to deal with them appropriately. There was a lot of learning available, particularly from the British army which had a long history of combating the troubles in Northern Ireland.
The political scientist noted that the clumsiness of the security operation reminded him of what happened on the Bangkok streets during May 1992. He asked why the Thai security forces seemed to treat political demonstrators like a wartime enemy. A member of the audience who had inside knowledge replied that the police and soldiers seen in the video seemed to be following standard Thai procedures. If so, the political scientist asked, why did the Thai security forces retain such procedures and not learn from elsewhere?
Discussion then turned to the video's final sequence showing scenes at the detention centre a couple of days after the incident. Around a hundred detainees were sitting on the floor in rows and being instructed by a security officer. What was going on? Thai members of the audience had to explain. The instructor was organizing them to sing a kindergarten song about elephants. “Elephant, elephant, elephant; have you even seen an elephant?” There was another stunned silence. An East Asian member of the audience then began to think aloud. So first we saw the security forces treating people like animals, then treating those who were lucky enough to survive like infants. Do the Thai security forces think that people in their country's far south are infants and animals? If so, does that explain why the situation has become so bad?
The final comment came from someone from one of Thailand's neighbouring countries. She understood that the southern problem is complex. The violence perpetrated by the rebels is awful and unacceptable. But the state and its security forces have a special responsibility. Because they claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, they must use that violence within the bounds of certain rules. Given the growth of tensions on a regional and worldwide scale, incidents like Tak Bai have consequences which are not confined within one country's borders. As a neighbour of Thailand, she could not accept the government's argument that Tak Bai was a “domestic” affair and others should not interfere. What, she asked, can all of us do to prevent such incidents happening because their consequences are widespread and far-reaching?
When Thailand's new foreign minister starts “explaining” Tak Bai and other incidents to the international community, he has to answer the sort of questions raised by this audience. But maybe he has started off with the wrong verb. “Explaining” is not what is needed.