BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) – Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha orders probe into shooting of Lahu activist Chaiyapoom Pasae, aged around 17 or 18, as activists call for transparency.
The shooting of a teenage boy by the Thailand Army has snowballed into a major controversy, with civic groups and rights defenders calling for a transparent investigation even as government leaders defended it as an act of self-defence.
The government leaders delivered their judgement yesterday even though the investigation into the fatal shooting of Lahu activist Chaiyapoom Pasae, aged around 17 or 18, is ongoing.
Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha said yesterday he had ordered an investigation into the shooting of Chaiyapoom in Chiang Mai’s Chiang Dao district in northern Thailand last Friday.
“But it shouldn’t be put in a way that he was killed for being an ethnic activist,” Prayut told reporters.
“The government never thinks like that. We have to seek clarity from evidence. I ask you to not mix words around, they will only affect the case,” he said.
The Lahus are one of the several ethnic groups in northern Thailand which are regarded as stateless communities. Chaiyapoom was known for his campaigns against drugs and also worked for the rights of minority tribal groups such as the Lahus.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said he had received a report from Army Chief General Chalermchai Sitthisart, which said officials had to protect themselves as the suspect had intended to throw a grenade that was found at the scene.
“What can they do? The officials also fear dying,” Prawit said, when told the suspect was a youth activist.
Army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said the case would be handled in accordance with legal procedures, adding that officials involved in the operation had to give testimony justifying their actions and police would proceed with their investigation, he said.
“In this case, the suspects were accused of possessing narcotics, resisting officials’ work and attempting to kill officials, while an operational official was charged with the killing,” he said.
“If the relatives [of Chaiyapoom] have doubts over the investigation and the case, they can have lawyers raise inquiries during the investigation and court trial,” Winthai said. “The army is ready to make the case clear and give justice to all.”
The claim that soldiers killed the outspoken young ethnic activist in self-defence set alarm bells ringing, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams said.
“Instead of accepting at face value the account of the soldiers who shot Chaiyapoom, authorities need to thoroughly and impartially investigate this case and make their findings public,” he said in a statement yesterday.
Surapong Kongchantuk, Cross-Cultural Foundation chairman and a lawyer in the case, called on authorities to put the soldier who shot Chaiyapoom in the normal justice system and in police detention, rather than hold him in a military camp.
“We are concerned about military interference in the judicial process and threatening witnesses since authorities likely have prejudice over this case,” Surapong said.
Ethnic groups in the area have had conflicts with the military before, so there were concerns over the transparency of the case and safety of the witness, he said.
Human rights bodies weigh in
“The best solution for now is the Army offering an apology to the public over the case and allowing an independent investigation into the military operation,” he said.
National Human Rights Commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit said the commission had taken Chaiyapoom’s case into consideration and would set up a panel to investigate the matter. The agency would request information from all concerned parties including police, the military, civic groups and activists, she said.
Amnesty International is calling on the government to immediately order an “independent, impartial and effective” investigation into the killing of the young Lahu activist.
The circumstances of the shooting are now subject to question. Chaiyapoom was shot dead last Friday while travelling in Chiang Dao district. He was reportedly in a car driven by classmate Phongsanai Saengtala when troops stopped the car at a checkpoint to search for narcotics.
Police said officials found 2,800 methamphetamine pills in the car’s air filter. While Phongsanai was arrested, Chaiyapoom allegedly got out of the car and ran away. Troops chased him and shot him dead as he was about to throw the grenade, police said.
But friends, colleagues and activists who knew Chaiyapoom said they did not believe the official story as the Lahu activist had dedicated himself for years to fighting against narcotics and for ethnic rights.
Chief of Na Wai police Chonlathep Maithai, who handled the case, said earlier that neither Chaiyapoom nor Phongsanai had a record of drug involvement. Phongsanai, who is now in custody, told police he did not know where the pills came from, while no other person who was at the crime scene has given information on the incident.