Friday, July 4, 2008

Fear of Army Cover-Up in Imam’s Death

The view from inside a Thai military jeep patrolling the border.

Human Rights Watch has just recently raised concern that the case of the Iman who was killed in military custody will be covered-up.

“Imam Yapa’s case is a test for the Thai Army on whether it can hold abusers in its ranks accountable,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch is correct, of course, that this case is an important example of military accountability.

But, as many Thais and foreign observers already know, there has never been much accountability for military abuses and the possibility of justice is unlikely.

Yet it is not only a history of military abuses going unpunished that makes justice unlikely. It is a combination of the current weak government and the military's role as protector of the nation that will prevent justice.

The present government, which could win a huge public relations victory in the troubled border provinces by proving that the government will uphold the rule of law and protect the citizens from military abuses, is hobbled by its fears of being ousted.

Rumors of another coup d'etat have reached fever pitch this week and Prime Minister Samak told reporters last night that he feared being seized at the airport upon his return from overseas in a military putsch similar to what happened in 1991 to Gen Chatichai Choonhavan.

There is a palatable sense that the military might seize power again and the government is unlikely to concentrate on anything other than its own immediate survival and certainly would not venture into a topic that places them in direct conflict with the military.

The second reason, the military's role protecting the nation, is more complex.

The Thai military has a deeply ingrained belief that its sacred duty is guided by the higher moral ground of protecting the nation.

In the recent past, the military's role of protecting the nation was dominated by fighting communism in the jungles and remote borderlands. Yet what is less known, is that fighting the communist threat was also understood as fighting to protect the monarchy.

Much of the anti-communist rhetoric used in Thailand was based on the idea that communism was somehow the antitheses of Thainess (ความเป็นไทย). The military's role of protecting Thailand from communism was based on the idea that they were protecting Thai identity - which holds the monarchy as a central tenet of Thai identity - from the foreign entity that was communism.

After all, had communism succeeded, scenarios like what happened to the Lao and Cambodian monarchies after the communist victories, might also happen in Thailand.

Today, with the threat of communism gone, Thailand's huge military remains but has lost its primary enemy. It still has a duty to protect the monarchy but now they must creatively interpret who their enemy is.

As some academics have suggested, the military has found one enemy in democracy. If politicians like Thaksin Shinawatra can rise to such lofty heights, heights that some believed to be closing in on the echelons of the monarchy, then democracy should not be trusted - hence the 2006 coup and the precarious situation of the current government.

The last enemy is anyone who threatens Thai territory and the southern insurgents certainly fall into this category of enemy.

Some in the military might also understand southern insurgents to not only be threatening Thai territory but also threatening the monarchy.

Muslims, as an article of faith, should only bow down to Allah and never to another human or to another god. This places them in conflict with highly ritualized demonstrations of respect that Thais honor their monarchy with.

Unfortunately, the soldiers that were supposed to be 'interrogating' the Imam might have understood him to represent both types of enemy that they have a sacred moral duty to fight.

And being perceived to be an enemy of the Thai military, a military that is not accountable to its own government, bodes unwell for any hope of justice in this case.

It also means that for the military to prosecute its own soldiers they would have to place a higher value upon the rights of citizens than upon their own self-assigned sacred duty to protect the nation and the monarchy.

This is extremely unlikely.

To read the Human Rights Watch report, please follow this link:
Commanding Officer Refused to Implicate Abusive Soldiers

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