Summary justice under scrutiny

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 June, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 June, 1998, 12:00am

Even by the standards of a bloody region, all evidence suggests it was a dreadful act. Six suspects in a central Thailand shootout surrendered after a 20-hour siege under the glare of live television coverage and whirring police helicopters.

They were led back to their hideout, handcuffed and shot at close range. They emerged a few minutes later, covered in white shrouds and being carried by police. The gunshots - at regular intervals - had been heard by a waiting crowd of villagers and reporters.

To some seeking an explanation, 18 months on, of the case known as the Suphan Buri Massacre, even phrases such as 'extra judicial killing' and 'summary execution' are still too euphemistic. To the families it was murder.

At the time, senior Thai police were allowed by a supportive government to dismiss it all as merely another day's work. The six victims were all suspected amphetamine dealers, police claimed, and had been plotting to kill a rival in Suphan Buri. One had tried to grab an officer's gun while inside and the group was killed in 'self defence'.

'These people were not saints,' said the officer in control of the stake out, General Salang Bunnag, then Thailand's deputy police chief. 'Today we have closed their cases.' Now under the eye of Chuan Leekpai's ruling Democrat Party, the case is anything but closed following continuing demands for justice by relatives.

A police special investigation under the command of the high-profile Lieutenant-General Seri Temiyavej is close to conclusion. The team has obtained video tapes and several confessions and has found 16 officers and an un-named major-general responsible. The files will be soon be handed to the county's legal authorities for a final decision to prosecute.

The chances of such a prosecution succeeding is greeted with cynicism by many - despite the will of the Democrats, constantly at pains to show a highly-principled front.

The police, ordinary Thais believe, are simply too organised and too venal. For years, police corruption, petty and large, has been a constant counter to those who describe Thailand as the source of true liberalism in Southeast Asia.

Like the army, the Thai police represent a vast institution far removed from the slick urbanites in power - a group that at best can only be marshalled by leaders rather than fully controlled. You may have a meek, clean-living lawyer in power at the top, but you still have to palm 500 baht (about HK$95) to a pot-bellied officer at the traffic lights.

'Killings in custody are not believed to be uncommon,' said one human rights worker in regular contact with the police. 'And yes we hear they are always in self-defence.' The probe too could easily become snagged on the cluttered reef of Thai politics. Lieutenant General Seri seems to emerge as Thailand's Elliot Ness whenever the Democrats are in power and constantly fights to prove he is not merely a political henchman. It could be difficult. Suphan Buri was at the heart of the political power-base of then-prime minister Banharn Silpa-archa.

The killings came amid severe public warnings from the diminutive Mr Banharn about the threat to society posed by amphetamine abuse. In classic Thai fashion he remains out but not down and is actively trying for another crack at power.

Politics seems to be the best defence of General Salang. He has yet to be named directly as part of the probe but is already taking the offensive.

'Of course it's all politics,' he said recently before vowing to devote his last three months before retirement to ensuring his officers were treated fairly.

'This was about self-defence. Nothing more.'