Judge Khanakorn Pianchana’s attempted suicide at the Yala Provincial Court last week is a dramatic wake up call to the need for justice in Thailand’s restive South. The judge shocking act was in protest against pressure to force him to sentence three of the five defendants to death in his verdict in a security case.
On 5 October, Khanakorn pulled out a pistol in his courtroom to shoot himself in the chest after delivering a verdict to acquit the five suspects. Authorities had charged them with security-related offences in connection with the use of firearms and the murders of five people in Yala in the middle of last year.
The 49-year-old judge survived the suicide attempt. The secretary-general of Thailand’s Office of the Judiciary, Sarawut Benjakul, visited Khanakorn in hospital over the weekend. He stated that the case would be reported to the Judicial Commission. But he declined to commit to further investigation of the episode, as demanded by civic groups advocating for the independence and transparency of the Thai judicial system. Sarawut remarked that the judicial branch had mechanisms to guarantee independence already in place.
Thailand’s southernmost Yala province has been a hotspot of the insurgent violence in the country’s Deep South. This violence has claimed more than 7,000 lives since 2004. While authorities in Bangkok have struggled to restore peace to the region for more than fifteen years, their approach to the situation has been excessively reliant on military solutions and ineffective law enforcement.
Justice must be a key element of any effort to address grievances in the predominantly Muslim region, which was annexed to the Thai kingdom more than a century ago. Its majority Malay population has long struggled against Bangkok to express its different identity and to secure a certain level of self-determination, if not independence.
The current wave of violence, directed mostly against civilians, has been carried out by faceless militants who never claim responsibility for incidents. The authorities’ poor intelligence on their adversaries has led to random arrests of local Muslims who can easily fall under suspicion and then arbitrarily face prosecution as threats to national security. Security officials and military forces tend to regard local Malay-Muslims as the enemy, rather than as ordinary Thai citizens with fundamental rights.
In the statement rendering his verdict that he read before turning a gun on himself, Judge Khanakorn said that his bosses had reviewed the verdict acquitting the five defendants and that they preferred death sentences for three of them and imprisonment for the other two. While scrutiny of cases on the part of judges at higher levels is a normal oversight procedure, Khanakorn argued in his verdict that there was no solid evidence to justify such tough sentences.
While a spokesman for the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), Colonel Pramot Prom-in ruled out any interference in the case, local media have reported that authorities in Bangkok meant to treat it as a security matter. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha instructed deputy national police chief General Srivara Rangsibramanakul in August of last year, two months after the indictment of the five suspects, to closely follow the case. Srivara told media representatives during his trip to the Deep South that same month that the case was a criminal case related to narcotics trafficking, but that the suspects also had ties to insurgents.
The judge said in his verdict that prosecutors had supported the allegations against the five defendants only with statements produced during interrogation during long detention in a military camp. As the case was not one related to security or terrorism charges, it was not legitimate to arrest and prosecute the suspects under the martial law and the draconian Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations, according to Judge Khanakorn.
Although the Thai justice system allows appeal of the verdict to a higher court, Khanakorn’s gunshot represents a call for public attention to problems in the judicial system. There have been instances of torture during interrogation, detention incommunicado, and death while in official custody.
Official mind-sets regarding law enforcement need to change dramatically. An ISOC officer in Pattani Province last week filed a complaint with the police against a dozen scholars and opposition politicians, charging them with sedition for holding a public brainstorming session on peaceful solutions for the restive South.
The ISOC was concerned that a panellist at the event in Pattani on 28 September mentioned the need to modify Section One of the 2017 military-sponsored constitution, which says that “Thailand is one indivisible Kingdom”. ISOC legal officer Major General Burin Thongpraphai alleged that this idea affected national security and was detrimental to efforts to solve the problems in the Deep South.
Unlike ordinary Muslims residents of that region, the politicians and scholars against whom the charges were filed could retaliate by lodging a petition for defamation and accusing the officer of using a strategic lawsuit against public participation in an effort to gag them.
While the judge’s gunshot calls attention to the need for judicial reform in pursuit of a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the Deep South, the ISOC officer’s paranoid legal complaint shows insecurity in the psyche of Thai security authorities — the obsessive fear of separatism. This insecurity leads them to reject all possible peaceful solutions to the long-running disputes in the region.
Mr Supalak Ganjanakhundee is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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