HUMAN Rights Watch (HRW) has demanded an immediate and transparent investigation into the recent fatal shooting of a teenage ethnic Lahu activist while under detention of the Thai military.
The human rights watchdog made the call on Monday following the death of 17-year-old Chaiyaphum Pa-sae during an anti-drug operation on March 17 in Chiang Dao district of Thailand’s northern Chiang Mai province.
Chaiyaphum was detained for alleged drug possession by soldiers from the army’s 5th Cavalry Regiment Task Force and the Pha Muang Task Force. The military personnel involved reported to the district police they stopped a car at Ban Rin Luang village checkpoint in which Chaiyaphum was a passenger.
HRW said the soldiers claimed to have found 2,800 methamphetamine pills hidden in the car’s air filter and Chaiyaphum along with the driver of the vehicle, Pongsanai Saengtala, were detained while the soldiers continued to search the car.
The soldiers alleged Chaiyaphum tried to flee and pulled a knife out of the car’s trunk, adding he also fought to evade arrest.
In the purported melee, the soldiers said they shot Chaiyaphum in self-defence as he tried to throw a hand grenade at them.
However, HRW Asia director Brad Adams, said the soldiers failed to explain how a detained person obtained the knife or grenade. The coroner confirmed Chaiyaphum was struck by an M16 assault rifle round which pierced his left arm and struck his heart.
“The claim that soldiers killed an outspoken young ethnic activist in self-defence after he had been held by soldiers sets the alarm bells ringing,” HRW said in a statement.
“Instead of accepting at face value the account of the soldiers who shot Chaiyaphum, the authorities need to thoroughly and impartially investigate this case and make their findings public.”
A well-known activist from the Young Seedlings Network Camp in Chiang Dao district, Chaiyaphum was involved in numerous campaigns to promote the rights of ethnic Lahu and other vulnerable ethnic minorities in northern Thailand.
Citizenship, health care, and access to education were among the issues he championed, according to HRW.
“He also spoke out against abuses by Thai security forces against his community during anti-drug operations,” HRW said, adding Chaiyaphum was a documentary producer and music composer.
Several of his short films, including “A Comb and A Buckle,” have been aired on the Thai PBS channel.
The watchdog said the Thai army had a longstanding practice of dismissing allegations of serious abuses committed by soldiers.
Despite numerous complaints about human rights violations by soldiers and army-affiliated militia groups during anti-drug operations, HRW said the army had rarely prosecuted military personnel for such offences.
In 2003 and 2004, HRW said there were numerous documented extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights violations during the country’s “war on drugs” under then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
It said this led to more abusive anti-drug operations by the armed forces and police across Thailand under successive governments following Thaksin being ousted in a military coup in 2006.
The watchdog pointed out many of those killed were members of ethnic populations in northern provinces who were known to have disputes with local authorities and who had consequently been blacklisted as suspected drug traffickers.
Many of them were killed at checkpoints or soon after being summoned to report to local military bases or police stations for questioning, the watchdog said.
“Abusive officials have long used anti-drug operations to cover their attacks on activists who exposed official wrongdoing or defended minority rights,” Adams said.
“Ethnic minorities in Thailand will never have full equality as long as those acting on their behalf face grave risks every day and killings such as this are not investigated properly.”
Adams also called on the military-led government to ensure the safety of witnesses, in this case, Pongsanai, the vehicle driver detained at Mae Taeng Prison in Chiang Mai province.