‘What is it like to be ethnic minority and get arrested?’ Academic seminar on human rights, access to justice, and police reform for ethnic minorities and indigenous people
“What is it like to be ethnic minority and get arrested?”
Academic seminar on human rights, access to justice, and police reform for ethnic minorities and indigenous people
20 September 2019, 10:00 – 16:30
Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University
On 20 September 2019, Chiang Mai University’s Center for Ethnic Studies and Development (CESD), the Institute for Justice Reform (IJR), and Police Watch together with the Cross-Cultural Foundation (CrCF), the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (NIPT), the Union of Civil Liberty (UCL), co-organized the academic seminar “What is it like to be ethnic minority and get arrested?” to provide a public forum for discussing human rights, access to justice, and police reform for ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples in Thailand. The event was well attended by 114 participants of various backgrounds including human rights activists, lawyers, academics, university students, and indigenous peoples from Akha, Karen, and Palong communities across the country’s Northern provinces.
“In principle, all persons should be equal before the law. However, in Thailand, such a principle is not practiced in reality,” said Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, Head of the CESD, as he delivered his opening remark. “Ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples still experience various forms of injustices and struggle to access justice via official state mechanisms. Recent examples include the cases of the extrajudicial killing of Chaiyaphum Pasae, a young Lahu activist in Chiang Mai, and the disappearance-turned-murder of a Karen activist in Petchaburi. Such a serious issue has brought us here together to discuss the current situations and ponder possible solutions.” Two discussions then ensued from Dr. Chayan’s speech; the first one was about human rights violations and barriers blocking access to justice for ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, and the second one challenges and opportunities for creating a racial-/ethnic-sensitive justice system.
Titled “Testimonies of the Victims: Understanding Injustices against Indigenous Peoples,” the panel discussion in the morning provided a platform for representatives from indigenous communities to tell stories about their experiences of human rights violations and barriers to access justice. The first speaker was Fai (Full name withheld), a young woman representing her Karen community in Om Koi district of Chiang Mai. She raised her concerns about the impending coal mining in her neighborhood, stating that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process carried out by the mining company was not transparent and exclude her and other concerned villagers from participating in decision-making. Suggesting the existing EIA report might contain a fabricated record of the villagers’ consent for the company to build the mine, she said, “My name was on the list of the company’s EIA report. It said that I gave them consent to build a coal mine in my community, but I was just ten years old. How can a ten-year-old girl give consent in the EIA process?” Although Fai and her fellow villagers had filed a complaint to many relevant agencies including the provincial Dhamrong Dharma Center and Chiang Mai Provincial Hall, there is no significant progress in the investigation.
“My existence has been criminalized since the day I was born,” said Mr. Adinan Laoyeepa, the second speaker from an indigenous Lisu community in Vieng Haeng district of Chiang Mai. He recounted that he had been charged with encroachment into reserved forest areas for merely inhabiting his ancestral lands. “All the Court cares about was a legal document of land ownership. They never listened to our testimonies about how our ancestors have lived here for decades.” He also stated that the National Council for Peace and Order had created a policy and law that justify their plunder of indigenous lands and rented them out to us for 20 years. “Who are you to tell me that I need to rent my own ancestors’ lands?” he said. Meanwhile, Mr. Sittipon Sonjai from the Federation of Northern Farmers said that 298 indigenous peoples have been charged with violating the same NCPO law. Moreover, in Chiang Rai, Akha communities are facing similar issues of land rights violations, yet no state agencies would accept their complaints.
Ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples residing along the border are also more vulnerable to extrajudicial executions at police and military checkpoints. Mr. Nittaya Jiakana from the Inter-Mountain Peoples’ Education and Culture in Thailand Association (IMPECT) brought into discussion the case of Mr. Jajue Ja-or, a Lisu man who was shot dead by a police officer in Vieng Haeng. Many witnesses alleged police officers killed him and subsequently moved his body, as well as placed a gun near his corpse to frame the incident as self-defense. Reportedly, Mr. Jajue’s family has filed a complaint to the Vieng Haeng police station, the Chiang Mai city hall, the provincial Dhamrong Dhamma center, and the National Human Rights Commission; however, there is no progress in the investigation. Given that the police’s presence is strong in the area, many villagers are now living in fear that such an extrajudicial execution will recur in their community. Shortly after, Mrs. Amamee Saemu, the mother of Mr. Abe Saemu, a Lisu man in Chiang Dao District who suffered the same fate, shared her experiences of struggles to pursue justice for her son in Court. She said that the Court seemed to believe the soldiers’ testimonies that they killed her son in self-defense despite the plenitude of evidence that suggested otherwise. “It shocks me how the justice system fails to recognize and empathize with our pain,” she said.
As one of the discussion moderators, Director of IMPECT Mr. Sakda Saenmi concluded the session by pointing out the common patterns of ethnic and racial discrimination in the Thai justice system. Ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples are subjected to various forms of human rights abuses, including but not limited to forced evictions and extrajudicial executions, and face multiple challenges in engaging with available justice mechanisms. He, therefore, highlighted the importance of the upstream reform in the Thai justice system. Ms. Somsri Hananuntasuk, a co-moderator of the panel, then proposed the idea that ethnic minorities living along the borderlands are even more vulnerable because the Thai government does not grant them citizenship, thereby leaving them unable to access state protection. “Nonetheless,” she noted, “As Thai people have recently elected the new parliamentarians into the House of Representatives, we can make use of our political representatives by filing complaints about human rights violations against ethnic and indigenous minorities through the Standing Committee on Children, Youth, Women, the Elderly, Persons with Disabilities, Ethnic Minorities, and LGBTQ.” She then ended the discussion that human rights defenders who work on this issue should strive towards a similar model to Taiwan where the Parliament has a special quota for indigenous politicians to be elected as MPs. So, those MPs can bring the cases and problems to the parliament easily.
The second discussion in the afternoon “Human Rights, Access to Justice, and Reform of Police Institutions and Justice Systems for Ethnic Minorities, Indigenous Peoples, and Vulnerable Groups” began with a lecture on human rights in criminal proceedings by Boonthan T. Verawongse, Coordinating Committee of the Institute for Justice Reform. Mr. Boonthan placed a great emphasis on a variety of concerned rights which an individual has, including the right to open and fair trial by an independent court, right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the right to be free from coercion, torture, and ill-treatment during criminal procedures.
The human rights principles laid out in Mr. Boonthan’s lecture have not been realized in Thailand, especially in the context of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples in the country. Meejoo Morlaegu, a representative from the Mekong Akha Network, recounted multiple stories about how she was abducted, physically attacked, and harassed by the Thai security forces for her human rights advocacy for stateless people in Northern Thailand. She remarked that she was considered lucky because many other indigenous persons were killed extrajudicially and did not have the same opportunity to publicly speak out about the injustices they experienced. She also added that not only state officials but also indigenous elites are perpetrators of human rights abuses; it is, therefore, also crucial to tackle inequalities within the indigenous communities.
Sumitchai Hattasan, an experienced lawyer who founded the Center for the Protection and Revival of Community Rights, pointed out to the ongoing vicious cycle that perpetuates racial inequalities that subject ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples to discrimination in the justice system. According to him, indigenous peoples are perceived stereotypically as ‘uncivilized’ criminals who deforest and sell drugs. Such stigmatization fuels racial biases in the mind of administrators of justice including police officers, public prosecutors, and judges. In his experiences of representing indigenous defendants accused of forest encroachment for inhabiting their ancestral lands, he found that the Court tends to presume that indigenous people must be guilty without genuine attempts to take into account facts and evidence that can prove their innocence or benefit their human rights. In many cases, government agencies conspire with one another to conceal evidence linked to state violence against indigenous peoples and perpetuate impunity for state officials. Police Colonel Traiwit Namtongthai who extensively worked on the case of the enforced disappearance of Billy Porlajee Rakchongcharoen responded to Mr. Sumitchai by saying that he believed transparency is key to solving this problem of inefficacy in administering justice for indigenous peoples.
Mr. Surapong Kongchantuek, President of the Cross-Cultural Foundation, identified the government officials’ tendency to weaponize the law as a means to criminalize indigenous peoples as one of the most critical problems that must be solved. He also noted that Courts tend to weigh testimonies of state officials more than those of ordinary villagers. The culture of impunity remains rampant in the country as perpetrators of gross human rights violations still walk free with full state protection. Mr. Surapong, therefore, proposed that the government must place stricter limitations on the police’s power and increase people’s capacity to call for state accountability when violations take place. The state officials’ use of power must also be transparent and respect both individual and community rights. He also suggested that the government may create a “white list” which includes the names of human rights defenders at risk whom the state should protect. Last but not least, he ended the discussion by emphasizing that no reform would be possible without serious efforts to tackle corruption which will restore trust in the government among ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples.