Justice is ‘blind’ — to the rich’s crimes
The rich and powerful have always had a better chance at evading punishment than their poorer and less connected counterparts. But with the internet and social media it has become increasingly difficult to hide this privilege.
In Thailand increased scrutiny and real-time exposure of how the rich and powerful use their money and influence to circumvent justice has not translated to more prosecutions of wealthy and influential criminals.
Amid case after case of blatant exploitation of power and influence, the Thai public has become almost desensitized by the impunity of the rich and come to expect different standards of justice applied to the rich and the poor.
Why wouldn’t we? We now have a sitting government minister whose father was convicted of murder and corruption and on the run for years dodging his 20 years jail sentence until the need for medical care forced him out of hiding early this month — then, after he voluntarily gave himself up and spent 10 minutes in prison he was whisked off to a hospital in his hometown in a VIP style. Investigators are now supposedly looking into who aided the minister’s father, a well-known ‘jao poh’ (mafia boss), in his six-year flight. Suspects include his relatives and government officials. Having failed to locate the fugitive for six years, the police have asked for another 15 days to wrap up the investigation. Arrests of anyone important will be a surprise.
We have also had a member of parliament accused of murder hiding behind parliamentary immunity, as well as a celebrity who was caught on camera shooting another person in the head but still remains free weeks after the crime was committed. But the Thai public knows that even the evidence on CCTV camera can be trumped by inexplicable retroactive loss of sight and memory among a mass of witnesses. I refer to another sitting cabinet member, a deputy prime minister, whose son was involved some years ago in a police killing, a point-blank shooting, in a pub in front of hundreds of witnesses, and CCTV cameras, but eventually let go due to “insufficient evidence.” This son later became a police officer because he was “a sharp shooter,” according to his father.
There is a privileged club of rich kids in Bangkok whose weapons are not guns but luxury cars, but likewise never have had to go to jail. Their victims include a Laotian migrant girl cut in half by a speeding Porsche; and a traffic cop on a motorbike killed in a hit and run by a Ferrari going at 200mph. The cases followed a usual pattern: ordinary people killed, negotiation when the suspect would report to the courteous police, bail granted, some compensation paid, no one in jail.
One of the few criminal cases involving a rich and well-connected defendant that went on trial involved a 17-year-old girl from a powerful family whose unlicensed and reckless driving resulted in a deadly clash with a van full of passengers, leaving nine people dead. She received two years suspended jail sentence and a few months of community service.
Highly accommodating ‘justice’ — for the powerful
So we Thais know well that while the rule of law is swift and unbending with the poor and powerless, it is highly accommodating and yielding to the rich and powerful.
In the few occasions that the rich and powerful are caught having done something bad, even horrible, they are accorded the kind of privileges that the poor without connections can only dream of, such as:
- time to prepare self for police questioning in the privacy and freedom of one’s own home;
- curtesy appointment at police station at own convenience to hear charges;
- understanding about “unforeseen” personal difficulties such as sudden illness, busy schedule, a special visit to ancestor’s cemetery (a reason for more extension to meet the police);
- bail (including in cases of rape or murder, premeditated or otherwise);
- special discount in jail sentence, if any, by the court (usually jail time suspension).
The course of justice for the rich and the poor usually follows different paths, and the weight of justice is measured on different scales. To accommodate the rich and powerful the scale of Thai justice can be tilted so far to one side and topple over. Sometimes the weight on one side is so heavy that the scale of justice can’t take the strain and breaks completely.
This case is an example. Five policemen were found guilty in August 2012 by the court of murdering a teenage boy in an extrajudicial killing. Three of the policemen were sentenced to death but all of them were given bail despite this group of policemen having a history of threatening the witnesses in the case. The witnesses said they were “afraid of being killed” before the culprits would be “brought [back] to justice.” Nothing more is heard about the case. It would seem that Lady Justice herself was beaten senseless and left unattended in a coma.
‘Justice’ for the downtrodden – the odds for Burmese-Karen girl
When it comes the poorest of the poor and underprivileged like foreign migrant workers in Thailand, the impunity for the rich and powerful offenders is more or less guaranteed. The chance for justice being served has an inverted relationship with the size of the gap between the power and influence of the offender and that of the victim.
In the 12-year-old tortured Karen girl case, the alleged offenders may not be so well known as the relatives of the cabinet members mentioned above, but the victim is at the bottom rung of society. The gap is huge.
Thailand’s record of ensuring justice for the Thai poor is bad and between very bad and abysmal for the likes of the Karen girl.
The 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report on Thailand by the US State Department is a sobering read. Some excerpt:
The government implemented regulations allowing foreign victims to live and work temporarily within Thailand… The number of prosecutions and convictions pursued for sex and labor trafficking was disproportionately small compared to the significant scope and magnitude of trafficking in Thailand. Effective anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts were hindered byauthorities’ failure to identify and adequately protect victims…
Weak law enforcement as well as slow judicial process were also identified as part of the problem.
Some suspected offenders fled the country or intimidated victims after judges decided to grant bail, further contributing to the government’s already low conviction rates.
There is also a general tendency not to punish employers.
The government often chose to facilitate an informal dispute resolution rather than to pursue criminal prosecution of employers in cases of the labor exploitation of migrants.
Direct involvement in and facilitation of human trafficking by law enforcement officials reportedly remained a significant problem in Thailand; authorities reported investigating three cases of complicity among local law enforcement officials, but there were no prosecutions or convictions of complicit officials during the year.
(See the full summary report.)
Slavery was abolished in Thailand a century ago but it’s hard to believe that was history when reading cases of horrible treatments of some poor foreign migrants.
Another horrific case of Karen girl abuse surfaces
As we wait to hear news about arrest of the husband and wife suspects in the 12-year-old tortured Karen girl case, another case of horrific abuse of another Karen-Burmese girl has surfaced. A Thai-langauge newspaper Thai Rath reported on February 25 that a 17-year-old Karen girl was kept a domestic servant and abused for two years since she was 14 by a family of a high ranking police in Bangkok.
When she was rescued in August 2011 the previously healthy girl was blind and part of her lips was missing. Her body was covered with injuries: her skull cracked, her ears bleeding, her arms and teeth broken, her face damaged, one of her eyes blackened, along with other signs of beating on various parts of her body. Her menses were no longer normal.
The abuse victim said she had to work from 5am to midnight without breaks. Some days she had to go without food, and when there was food it was poured on newspaper sheets for her to eat. She slept in front of a washing machine and was given only one change of clothing to wear.
After the rescue (aided by a daughter of the matron of the house who apparently could no longer bare to watch), with the help of the Thai Lawyers’ Council and the National Human Rights Commission criminal and civil suits were filed a year ago. A complaint was filed with the anti-trafficking police unit on 14 February 2012 but there has been no development on the case.
A complaint was also filed with the Central Labour Court, demanding 1.25 million bath in damages for the victim. The Court resolved the case by ordering the complainant’s lawyer and social worker to go outside the courtroom to settle with the employer, who paid only 200,000 baht in damages with a condition that the complainant would not pursue criminal and civil complaints against her.
Concerned that the now 17-year-old Karen girl would never see justice, the Thai Lawyers’ Council and the National Human Rights Commission resorted to seek media attention and told her story to Thai Rath.
Couple jumped bail – Police know where they are but still no arrest
The 12-year-old Karen girl will get expert care for her injuries but doctors say she can only hope for partial cure. The physical damage on her body is horrendous but the mental and developmental damage is no less so. No amount of money and reparation can bring back her lost years and erase the horror. But at the very least, Thailand owes it to this girl and the other Karen girl to see that justice is done by bringing their abusers to the court of law.
The Kamphaengphet police have failed the 12-year-old Karen girl already once when they returned her to her abusers when she was nine. They failed her again with their handling of her merely as a piece of evidence, and again by letting the accused slip through their hands.
The Thai police seem to know where the couple might be hiding (in one of the casinos in Poi Pet, Cambodia), as well as who is aiding in their flight (an army officer, the father of the male suspect). The police told the media a week ago that they would have “good news in a couple of days.” No such good news has been reported. (UPDATE: 1 June 2013, still no arrest, and no more media reporting since this article.)
Is there any hope for justice for the Karen girls?
How much can we hope to rely on the Thai police and the Thai court to ensure justice in the two cases involving the Karen girls?
The Karen Network for Culture and Environment has submitted a letter to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to see to it that the case won’t be forgotten and go the way of many cases before it.
Mr. Naing Htun, Burmese labor official, said he had expressed concerns to the Thai court that allowed bail for the couple but was assured that it wouldn’t prevent them facing justice.
I asked the police about the couple’s release on bail, but they said they had already gathered enough evidence, and now it was up to the prosecutors to do their work. They assured me everything would be done in accordance with the law.
I’m worried that this case will also disappear in the near future, because we have experienced many such incidents before… Whenever rights abuses happen, the Thais tend to be quiet and then forget about them after a while. We used to hire lawyers in labor disputes or abuse cases, but in the end, we Burmese always lost in court. (The Irrawaddy, 20 February 2013)
Thailand must do the right thing and act civilized
I believe Thai police can be effective when they choose to be. Catching fugitives who are presumably non-professional criminals can’t be beyond their ability. There are leads and there are means to get them back. The issue is whether there is a will to see justice done.
It is also not beyond the Thai court to see to due process. The question is whether the officers of the court will rise above their usual indifference and reach deeper into their compassion and sense of justice to see that the victims are no less human than their own children.
Thailand tends to decry shame when it comes to trivial things like funny videos or somebody saying something that tarnishes the country’s image. What Thailand — Thai authorities, Thai government — need to realize is that the real shame is rather in this kind of serious neglect in compassion, fairness, and justice.
By allowing this type of inhuman treatments and atrocious crimes to go unpunished, Thailand is saying to the world that it cares little about what is right. And that is truly shameful. It is a disgrace to us all. As a Thai I am deeply ashamed that poor foreign people, especially children, have been treated so terribly and that my country continues to let it happen again and again, and again.
Whether or not a society is truly civilized can be judged, not by the number of modern structures, glitzy shopping malls or fancy cars, but by the way the weak and powerless are treated in that society. By this measure, I am afraid that Thailand is still uncivilized.
Thai justice system needs to change to treat all equally and fairly before Thailand can call itself a civilized nation. And for change to happen, a signal must be sent from the top.
While the Thai police force may be a state within its own and immediate changes are difficult, but change is an ongoing process which often starts small. If the Thai government cares at all about justice, its top leader, the prime minister, should have come out to at least express dismay at what happened to the 12-year-old Karen girl, if not to assure the victim, the victim’s family and the public that justice will be served.
As a mother, I am sure Prime Minister Yingluck feels for these Karen girls too. But feeling sorry isn’t enough. As the prime minister, she can do more to help, to see that justice is done for these poor girls. It is not too late. (UPDATE: 1 June 2013, the PM has never said anything either about this case.)
Note: This article was first published on SiamVoices, Asian Correspondent, on February 25, 2013.