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Thailand's Gulag and Ethnic Minorities
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 movie.

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 prison administrations.

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 officialdom.

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.

Pardon Me

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 severely lacking.

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 when prison 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 prison hospital.

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 factory work.

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 elsewhere?

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