End of protests in Thailand is time for accountability
The anti-government group the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) called a halt to the occupation of two international airports and government buildings in Bangkok on Wednesday 3 December. The protests ended with PAD leaders claiming victory, after the Constitutional Court dissolved Thailand's governing People's Power Party (PPP) and banned Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat from politics for five years. The Thai government, its proxies and anti-government groups should now make commitments to ending human rights abuses, according to a joint statement by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) The organizations also called on the Thai government to create an independent commission to carry out a prompt, effective and impartial investigation into the politically motivated violence by all sides in recent months and to hold those responsible to account. Several people have been killed and dozens injured since the PAD protests escalated in August. The potential for violence remains. PAD have said that protests could be renewed if another person seen as a proxy for the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as Somchai was, forms a new party and government and becomes prime minister. "Members of the PAD, pro-government groups, and government officials responsible for violence and other human rights abuses should be held legally accountable," said Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific director at Amnesty International. "The legacy of the Thaksin era and then military rule has seen severe weakening of the rule of law and accountability. The present volatile situation demands commitment from all sides to strengthen respect for human rights and end impunity." During the recent months of political turbulence, the police have at times used excessive force to disperse PAD protesters. The most violent incident took place on 7 October, when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse about 2,000 protesters in front of Parliament. News footage and accounts by witnesses show that police fired tear gas in a straight line and at close range directly at the protesters. Two PAD supporters died and 443 were injured, including four cases requiring amputation. About 20 police officers were wounded by PAD protesters who fired guns, shot slingshots, and threw bricks and metal pipes. Some police officers were run over by pickup trucks or stabbed with flagpoles. "While police have the right to use force to defend themselves and others from attack, the extensive casualties demand an investigation into whether the police used excessive force," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "Whenever serious injuries occur during protests, such an investigation should be mandatory." Contrary to its claims that PAD is a non-violent, unarmed group, its leaders have armed many of their supporters and have made no visible efforts to disarm its followers. Many PAD security guards and protesters have been arrested at police checkpoints across Bangkok with guns, explosives, knives, and machetes. Thai police reported that they arrested an armed PAD guard with a sub-machine gun, a pistol, a knife, homemade grenades, and a large quantity of ammunition, on 25 November. Three days later, 17 PAD protesters were arrested at a police checkpoint while trying to use a pickup truck marked with Red Cross symbols, to smuggle weapons to the protest site at Suvarnabumi international airport. News footage and accounts by witnesses show PAD armed guards assaulting and detaining many people in their protest sites, accusing them of being government supporters. PAD has carried out what it called "the final war" to overthrow the elected government of Prime Minister Somchai because of its close ties to Thaksin, since 23 November. With strong financial, political and logistical support from anti-government political parties, business people, and elements of the military and police, PAD proposes greater powers under a new constitution for the military and non-elected officials. Thousands of PAD protesters surrounded the Thai Parliament on 24 November. They cut electricity supplies, forcing the joint session between the House of Representatives and the Senate to be cancelled. Another group of protesters then surrounded the nearby headquarters of the Bangkok Metropolitan Police. Police decided not to use force to disperse protesters, concerned that if they used force against PAD supporters the army would use it as a pretext for a military coup. After declaring victory by forcing the parliamentary session to be cancelled, PAD leaders directed protesters to besiege the temporary government office established at Don Muang international airport on 24 November. They disrupted the government's attempt to hold a cabinet meeting at the headquarters of the Thai armed forces on 25 November. PAD supporters then occupied Bangkok's Suvarnabumi and Don Muang international airports, on November 25 and 27 respectively. PAD leader Sonthi, who did not sleep at the protest sites, broadcast a message on television and the internet on 28 November. He told PAD's armed guards and protesters that they should be willing to sacrifice their lives to defend their protest sites. "We will protect our strongholds," he said. "If we have to die, then so be it…Do not worry brothers and sisters…Shed your blood if that it is necessary...Our protest is righteous and constitutional...We will not open the gate to police. If they charge it and shoot at us, we will fire back." "The PAD has been trying for months to provoke a violent police response to its protests in the express hope of triggering a military coup d'etat and bringing down this government," said Zarifi. "The PAD should understand that when it uses force, including firearms, to endanger lives not only of law enforcement officers but also of ordinary citizens, it cannot claim to be a peaceful movement." Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are demanding that The Thai government ensure that security forces adhere to international principles on crowd dispersal and the use of force, including using force only as a last resort and to the minimum extent necessary. The organizations are also calling on PAD to refrain from abusing human rights, including the right to life and freedom of movement, and to refrain from obstructing government actions aimed at protecting human rights.