BANGKOK — The Thai Ministry of Defense recently released a 605-page report of a team that investigated a May 1992 uprising in which soldiers shot dead dozens of prodemocracy demonstrators. To people abroad, the news headlines may make it appear as if Thailand finally is coming to terms with political atrocities of the past, as several new democracies in Latin America, Africa and Asia have done in recent years.
Actually, while Thailand has made significant progress in democratic development since the 1992 bloodshed, it has made little if any progress in confronting the crimes of the past.
The report into the 1992 uprising was released only after newspapers and activist groups including the relatives of those killed or reported missing filed petitions under a new law that compels the state to release certain types of information. The military censors, citing “national security,” inked out more than 60 percent of the report — including names of officers and their units — before releasing it, making it impossible to tell who did what in 1992. The media and activist groups criticized the move. But instead of ordering the release of the full report, Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, who is also defense minister, asked the Defense Ministry to see whether people mentioned in the report would agree to having their names released — as if the privacy rights of soldiers who killed unarmed demonstrators was more important than the right of the Thai people to know the truth.
A fuller version may well be released soon. But no one expects it to shed any new light on what happened. The 40 percent left uncensored shows the report only echoes the military’s version of May 1992. Numerous independent witnesses including journalists, doctors and others say that the soldiers fired directly on demonstrators, some in the back as they tried to flee, and stomped on others or beat them with rifle butts as they lay helplessly on the ground. The evidence is on videotape taken by news organizations and broadcast worldwide at the time. It is irrefutable. Yet in the report released by the Defense Ministry, military officers one after another are quoted as saying that the violence was instigated by the demonstrators, that they did not see any civilians injured, and that soldiers only fired warning shots into the sky and at the tires of vehicles. The probe team, which was headed by a former deputy supreme commander, apparently did not seek testimony from independent witnesses.
A leading human-rights lawyer, Thongbai Thongao, says the report is no different from the way Thai governments have tried to obscure what exactly happened, who was to blame, and how many people were killed by soldiers and rightists in the two other major prodemocracy uprisings in Thai history, in 1973 and 1976. “As a rule, our history books record only the righteousness and virtue of the powers-that-be,” Thongbai recently wrote in his newspaper column. The report on the 1992 uprising, he wrote, “remains another page in our history which is distorted by the powers-that-be to maintain their power. It happened before and it is happening again.”
Many ordinary Thais are accomplices in this official conspiracy of distortion. Thais have a strong desire for public calm and peace, and they fear that dredging up the past will only cause turmoil and confrontation today. Many Thais are ready to forgive coup makers and killers simply because forgiving allows you to forget — and to keep the past safely buried. These feelings are much stronger than any desire for justice.
Police Lt. Gen. Viroj Pao-in serves as a deputy prime minister under Chuan even though as a minister in 1992 he may have had a role in the bloodshed. Last week army Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon, a coup leader who was the focus of the demonstrators’ wrath in 1992, admitted that mistakes were made at that time. His comments were defensive and half-hearted. It was not an apology, but it was enough to placate Adul Kiewboriboon, who leads a group of families seeking information on relatives killed or missing from 1992. “Society feels compelled to forgive if one is able to come to terms with his misdeeds,” the Bangkok Post quoted Adul as saying. “Gen. Suchinda has already been socially punished.”
Also, a university lecturer recently wrote a newspaper article reminding people that one of the candidates for Bangkok governor, rightist politician Samak Sundaravej, may have provoked the massacre of student demonstrators in 1976 when he was the minister for internal security. Do we want, the lecturer asked, a governor who may have “blood on his hands?” The historical evidence is against Samak. Yet public opinion polls show Samak will win next month’s election.
“Has any military or high official who committed similar heinous crimes in our modern history been punished or humiliated? Sadly, no,” an editorial in The Nation newspaper said. “Are we going to let this sorry state of affairs to continue in the time-honored Thai way of forgetting and forgiving blatant crimes against the people or pretending that they did not happen?”
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