Justice failing ethnic groups

An exhibition was organised in Bangkok in April 2017 in memory of the slayed Lahu youth activist Chaiyaphum Pasae.

For ethnic people, trying to get a shred of justice from authorities can be an ordeal. But it can be even more difficult when the judicial process is handled exclusively by military courts. That says a great deal about the quest for vindication by the families of a Lahu activist, Chaiyaphum Pasae, and a Lisu man, Abe Sae Mu, who were gunned down in broad daylight by army rangers in separate incidents in Chiang Mai more than two years ago.

Disheartened that justice had been delayed, the families lodged a joint lawsuit with the Civil Court in Bangkok this week, demanding a combined 11 million baht in compensation from the military. Their lawyer said the case proceedings at the Civil Court could force the army to come up with a defence and then present related evidence, which been shrouded in mystery.

Abe Sae, 33, was shot by a soldier in the middle of a road on Feb 15, 2017. Chaiyaphum, 17, was killed by another ranger at a checkpoint a month later, on March 17. The army rangers came up with similar stories for both killings. They said the shootings were in self defence and that the two possessed illicit drugs and threatened to attack authorities with a hand grenade.

But their families and acquaintances insisted Abe Sae and Chaiyaphum had no history of involvement in the illicit drug trade. According to their lawyers, eyewitness accounts suggest they had no hand grenades in their possession and did not attack the soldiers. Their families have other reasons to doubt the soldiers' accounts. This is because dozens of Lahu people have suffered enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in past years at the hands of army rangers and police officers. Additionally, officials in these areas tend to maintain the assumption that people who live in districts bordering Myanmar are involved in drug trafficking.

The case of Chaiyaphum alone has drawn widespread suspicion because there were nine CCTV cameras installed at and around the checkpoint, but the army has not handed over footage at any point during the investigation. The soldiers in the area claimed the recordings were erased and replaced by new footage. But their account contradicts the statements given by then-army chief Chalermchai Sitthisad and Third Region Army chief Lt Gen Vijak Siribunsop who suggested the footage existed "because they saw it".

The footage could help prove whether the extrajudicial killing of Chaiyaphum was an act of self-defence or if it was a crime. Last year, the Chiang Mai court held trials to determine the cause of death in the two cases. It ruled that the men were killed by the soldiers. Afterwards, the case files and evidence were sent back to public prosecutors. Because the soldiers were implicated, the cases had to be handled by military prosecutors and military courts.

So far, the families have been excluded from the process and have been kept in the dark over whether the cases have undergone military justice procedures. Given that these are extra-judicial killings, the authorities should have realised the seriousness of the cases and handled them in a swift, transparent and neutral manner.

The delay in the two cases not only implies a denial of justice for the families, but also indicates there is a possibility that these could end up as cases of impunity, like with many other extrajudicial killings carried out by security officers in the country.

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