20th June 2005
Amazing, is it not, how millions of tourists flood into Thailand yet
see only the superficial, shiny silk packaging of the country? Some
tourists visit poor hilltribe villages and still fail to understand the
discrimination, oppression and denial of basic human rights which
villagers suffer at the hands of corrupt officials, who treat ethnic
minorities as outcasts in their own land.
How many tourists to Thailand have noticed the huge refugee camps of
Karen and other minorities in the north-west of the country? How many
know about the Hmong refugees fleeing persecution in Laos only to suffer
chronic lack of rights and oppression in Thailand? How many have seen the
large numbers of orphanages and residential schools, often under the
guise of christian establishments, in northern Thailand, filled with Akha
and other ethnic minority hilltribe children? They resemble those in
Australia, Canada and elsewhere which have been severely condemned, with
governments having to pay compensation for their past dirty deeds of
attempted cultural and ethnic cleansing, sexual abuse, and other such
crimes against indigenous people. How many tourists know about the
disproportionally large numbers of ethnic minorities held in Thai jails?
Ethnic minority villagers, refugees and prisoners are afraid to
speak out about their plight for fear of even worse repercussions from
Thai officials. Yet occasionally the silk veil slips or is torn, the
tourist packaging is ripped apart by a tsunami, the Thai smile is revealed
to be a face on the abyss, and the movie "Brokedown Palace" is banned in
Thailand, the land of miles of smiles!
U.N. Prison Visits
On 19th and 21st April participants of the 11th U.N. Congress on
Crime Prevention and Criminal
Justice, held in Bangkok 18 - 25 April 2005, visited the women's prison at
Lard Yao in northern Bangkok. Such visits are carefully managed by the
Thais, who wish to dispel the abysmal image portrayed of the place in the
Reports say that foreign prisoners were kept away from the visitors
to prevent them from speaking up about the real conditions that prevail
there: overcrowding, poor food, dirty water, coerced and
often unpaid work, and the necessity for inmates to buy even basic things
like soap, cleaning materials, potable water and edible food. However,
there is hope that there will soon be some changes for the better in
Thailand's criminal justice system following the slight nudge given by the
11th U.N. Congress and its prison visits.
About three years ago Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra appointed a
committee to look into law
reform. The committee's chief admitted on radio that 20% of prisoners in
Thai jails are innocent. The true number is probably much higher.
Meanwhile, corruption within the police, judiciary and officialdom is
well-known to be widespread, deeply rooted and pernicious.
The Department of Corrections has been overwhelmed in recent years
due to the enormous influx
of prisoners, mostly drugs cases, including many innocent victims of
corrupt police and judiciary.
Prisons are grossly underfunded by the government considering the
burgeoning numbers of inmates they hold. Thus prisoners suffer atrocious
conditions, chronic overcrowding, and forced labour to generate funds for
Corruption is rife amongst prison officials and inmates largely due
to a lack of government funding
and the traditional culture of allowing petty officials to levy "taxes"
directly from the people
they supposedly serve or minister to. Thus prisoners must pay prison
officials for privileges, or even for their basic rights.
Draconian sentences for drugs cases, which make up about 80% of
cases in Thailand, also contribute towards the expanding prison
population. It is therefore essential for Taksin's government to look
into its whole policy of criminal justice before the system breaks down
completely. Law reforms are needed, especially to reduce sentences for
drugs cases to be more in line with those in the West. An effective means
is also required to deal with corruption in the police, judiciary and
Suwat Liptapanlop, the new Minister of Justice appointed on 11th
March 2005, was President of the U.N. Congress in Bangkok in April. It is
hoped that he may bring some favorable changes to the Thai criminal
justice system. In May he sent about 5,000 prisoners accused of minor
drugs offences to army camps. This method has been used before and is an
indication of the strain on the prison system in Thailand.
However, the drugs war and killing go on. The poverty, ignorance and
oppression in ethnic hilltribe
villages often gives these poor people little alternative but to turn to
drugs to alleviate their
suffering, or in an attempt to make money just to survive. Corrupt
officials and police are involved in
drugs themselves, and will often use hilltribe villagers before entrapping
them. It is the ethnic
minority hilltribes who often end up in prison or killed as defenceless
prey, because there is little or
no means for them to defend their rights fairly in Thailand.
Until the Thai government sees that the basic rights of all people
are respected, treats ethnic
minorities equitably, alleviates the poverty and oppression of villagers,
and deals effectively with
corrupt officials and police, then the drugs and general crime situation
will continue to deteriorate.
For many innocent, as well as guilty, prisoners in Thailand with
long sentences for drugs trafficking, their only hope of freedom is a
royal pardon. This must be requested through official channels, requiring
time, money and some kind of official support to be successful. Otherwise
there are occasional amnesties for prisoners on the King's birthday, 5th
December, or Queen's birthday, 12th August.
Last year there were many official announcements concerning a
Queen's birthday amnesty. Prisoners were even told by officials that they
would be released or receive sentence reductions, only later to have
these retracted, even in writing admitting there had been official
mistakes! It was an official mess, dashing the hopes of many prisoners -
a kind of psychological torture.
Some prisoners are now raising their hopes again for an amnesty next
year on the occasion of the King's 60 years on the throne as the longest
reigning monarch in the world. Then on 5th December 2007 the King will
celebrate his 80th birthday, providing yet another occasion for hope. It
appears that the King's office has a light finger on the pressure valve
of the boiler that is the criminal justice system in Thailand, keeping
not a few hot under the collar.
During this year's hot season, from March to June, some elderly
prisoners at Lard Yao women's
prison fell ill, and there are reports of some inmate deaths at this time.
Two young Burmese women died with AIDS. They received no help from the
Burmese Embassy. Their families in Burma could not visit them, or even
bury their bodies. An elderly Nepali women, Vishnu Kumari Vishta, went to
the prison hospital on 26th April, possibly with heart problems exacubated
by prison conditions and the heat. She had been told that she would be
released in last year's Queen's amnesty, but apparently even medical
grounds are not sufficient to persuade Thai officials to keep their word,
have compassion, and release this poor, old woman.
Ethnic Minority Prisoners
Mee Ju, a young Akha hilltribe woman, had recently been in Klong
Prem Prison Hospital with
gastric problems. She is now back at Lard Yao women's prison, although she
still takes medicines. Medicines must be paid for by prisoners themselves,
or outside sources, while proficient doctors and medical facilities are
Two Akha women, Mee Taw and Mee Yo, had their death sentences
commuted to life in early April at the appeal court. The judge understood
that they pleaded guilty in their drugs case, which they had from the
beginning denied and pleaded their innocence, thus originally receiving
the death sentence. They have one more appeal pending.
Ja Ngao Ayee, an Akha man with a life sentence for drugs, was sent
from the prison in Pathumthani to Klong Prem Prison Hospital on 5th April
with TB, very sick with fever and coughing. There is a very high
incidence of TB in Thai jails, especially amongst the hilltribe minorities.
At the relatively new Chiangmai Men's Prison there have been water
supply problems, as at other
prisons. One prisoner there apparently choked to death in front of
hundreds of inmates while trying to eat his food in a hurry. Prisoners are
given little time to eat poor food.
The 3,600 prisoners at Chiangmai Men's Prison must join long lines
to buy basic things like soap at inflated prison prices. It is the same
story in other prisons throughout Thailand. Many inmates are
hilltribe men whose families are yet further impoverished by their
absence, and they are often unable to visit or help their relatives in prison.
One Lahu man, Dome Chaikor, has been unable to care for his wife and
11-year-old daughter who was born while he was in prison. He has studied
and graduated in law while in prison, as Mee Ju at Lard Yao women's
prison has also done. Surely some consideration of this is called for
officials review prisoners' sentences.
Good behaviour can reduce sentences by up to one sixth for Thai
prisoners, but hilltribe and Burmese prisoners often feel discriminated
against. Thai prison officials may not always treat ethnic
minorities fairly. They are like foreigners in their own land, with no
embassy or support for their
complaints. Hilltribe minorities are often ignorant of the concept of
human rights, as they have only
experienced the total lack of rights in their lives. Ethnic minority
prisoners have little or no way to
stand up for their basic rights without incurring harsh treatment from
prison officials, who often
regard them as less than human. There is little or no evidence that the
Thai authorities have any desire to change this situation.
Ethnic minorities from Burma are likewise largely ignored by Myanmar
Embassy officials. It often seems that bribes are the only way to move
prison, embassy and government officials from their dereliction of duty
to care for and serve the people they supposedly minister to. Ethnic
minorities are often discriminated against in society at large, and this
is one reason why so many end up in prison. Too poor to pay bribes, they
suffer a yet worse fate in prison. Klong Pai Central Prison, north-east
of Bangkok, also holds substantial numbers of Karen, Hmong, Akha, Lisaw,
Yao, Lahu and other ethnic minorities. This prison is far from their
homelands, and there is little or no chance for their families to visit them.
Rattanachai Kiatshie, an Akha man from Burma, was moved to the
prison hospital on 5th February. He is very ill, possibly with TB, with
no sign of improvement. There are at least four other Burmese men in the
Klong Pai prison also has water problems. Prisoners must use dirty
water from the local river.
Prison food is very poor, and prisoners are often not paid at all for
San Aung Mon, a Mon man from Burma, has spent 13 years in Thai
jails. He says that the only visit or help he has received in that time
was when I once visited Klong Pai prison. His release is due at the end
of this year, but he is worried about paying off his prison "fine" or
debts. He will have to work to pay this off before he is released at the
border. Without assistance from the Myanmar Embassy he has no idea how he
will be able to reach his family in Burma, whom he has not heard from in
all these years!
Many ethnic minority prisoners in Thailand have expressed their wish
to be located in prisons nearer to their homes so that their families can
visit them. At present many are being held far from their homes in a
gulag-like torture. This suffering is well hidden from passing tourist
eyes. So who will stop to look into and consider the abyss behind the
superficial smiles on the faces of Thai officials who wish you would look