Forensic Science Enhances Access to Justice and Human Rights Protection in Thailand
February 27, 2013
Animation series raises public understanding of the role of forensic investigation in criminal justice administration
Among the array of international television series aired by cable networks in Thailand, “CSI,” “Bones,” and other dramas that highlight the work of forensic pathologists are especially popular. While Thai audiences are exposed to the dramatized investigative techniques applied by forensic specialists working in cooperation with law enforcement agencies in Western and other Asian criminal justice systems, forensic science is a nascent field in Thailand – but one in which major strides have been made in recent years.
Forensic investigation holds special significance in an environment in which allegations of human rights abuse routinely arise in the context of the performance of criminal justice and security agencies in cases spanning sexual violence to national security. These cases include the controversial 2003 “war on drugs,” the unresolved deaths that occurred as the May 2010 political violence reached a bloody climax, and the protracted conflict that has shattered a tradition of peaceful coexistence among the Malay-Muslim majority and Thai-Buddhist minority populations of the Deep South. Public perception surveys conducted by The Asia Foundation and other organizations have consistently found that Thais place considerable confidence in the judiciary, but have less confidence in the professional competence or integrity of the police and armed forces.
A number of factors have constrained the development of forensic science capacity in Thailand. These include a short supply of criminal justice and medical professionals qualified to conduct forensic investigation, and resource constraints that limit professional development and exposure to state-of-the-art international practices. The situation is exacerbated by contradictions and gaps in the legal and regulatory regime governing the application of forensic science and the limited communication and coordination among forensic specialists, which lead to overlapping responsibilities, occasional turf battles between the Royal Thai Police and other public agencies with forensic investigative mandates, and other challenges. In addition, media coverage of criminal justice cases tends to emphasize graphic sensationalism over thoughtful reporting, which has contributed to limited citizen awareness of forensic science and its relevance to law enforcement, poor protection of crime scenes prior to the arrival of professional investigators, and weak public demand for criminal justice reform. The situation is especially problematic in the Deep South, where the latest cycle of violent conflict has entered its ninth year and the local population lives in an environment of chronic fear and insecurity. Some of the most serious human rights cases involving insurgent violence and impunity on the part of security agencies have not been prosecuted, while weak or vexatious cases against individuals accused of abuse of authority, insurgent leanings, or other criminal acts are often dismissed at trial for want of evidence to support conviction, which wastes precious resources and reduces public confidence in the justice system.
The Asia Foundation has been working with Thai partners in government, academia, civil society, and the media to support complementary efforts to strengthen forensic science capacity, clarify legal responsibilities, investigate and prosecute human rights cases, and raise public awareness of the role of forensic investigation in protecting the rights of vulnerable groups. A hallmark of Foundation programming has been a brokering role in facilitating dialogue and cooperation among different stakeholder groups, including public prosecutors under the Office of the Attorney General, the Royal Thai Police, university medical faculties, the National Law Reform Committee, Just Rights and other human rights lawyers associations, and the print and broadcast media. Institutions that once operated in a stove-piped manner now routinely cooperate in identifying common challenges and pursuing collaborative solutions.
Limited public awareness and understanding of forensic science leads to misunderstandings, misperceptions, and even distrust of responsible agencies. To address this issue, we recently produced and launched a series of five short animated films [first episode featured below] in cooperation with local partner Tomato Sound Agent and with thoughtful guidance on complex technical points from seven partner organizations. The cartoon series features a patiently good-natured professor who introduces a curious young man and woman to forensic science. The cartoons were originally intended to educate young people about forensic investigation, but have been embraced by adult audiences and government, university, and civil society partners as a practical introduction to the field. The five episodes cover a broad range of themes, including an overview of forensic science; crime scene investigation and collection of evidence; examining and investigating cases of sexual assault; suspected violence or torture by security personnel in arresting, interrogating or detaining suspects; and distinguishing between murder and suicide.
The cartoon series was recently introduced at a seminar on “Human Rights and Forensic Science in Thai Judicial Process” that was convened by Just Rights in partnership with The Asia Foundation and Central Institute for Forensic Science (CIFS). The five cartoons are now live on Facebook and YouTube, with links to popular Thai web-boards. DVD copies of the cartoons will be shared with local partners in government, academia, the medical profession, civil society, and the media. A sixth cartoon on chain-of-custody management of evidence collected at crime scenes is in production. As part of the Foundation’s support for the training of media professionals on forensic science, investigative reports produced by trained journalists will be posted to the dedicated social media sites. We will closely monitor usage and applications of the cartoons and collect viewer feedback, as well. The Scientific Crime Detection Centre 7 of the Office of Forensic Science Police has also expressed interest in using the animations as part of its training of police officers.
Asia Foundation forensic programs are supported by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Rights, and Labor (DRL) and the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID).
Arpaporn Winijkulchai is a program officer with The Asia Foundation’s Thailand office, while Kim McQuay is the Foundation’s country representative in Thailand. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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