Notes from the Field

In Thailand and Cambodia, a Culture of Impunity Still Holds

November 13, 2013

In November 1979, I attended a benefit concert in Bangkok given by Joan Baez to help raise funds for the humanitarian relief of Cambodian refugees who fled to the Thai border to escape the heinous rule of the Khmer Rouge. An estimated two million people were murdered by Pol Pot and his henchmen. Prior to Ms. Baez’s concert, she visited refugee camps on the Thai border along with other American social activists, including Bayard Rustin, a noted African-American civil rights leader who made remarks at the concert calling for peace and justice.

Bangkok Protests 2010

Soldiers patrol streets in central Bangkok after 2010 protests left 91 people killed and 2,100 seriously wounded. Photo/flickr user Ratchaprasong

At the end of the concert, Ms. Baez was presented with a bouquet of flowers in appreciation of her performance by the guest of honor seated in the balcony, former Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn. Peace and justice were not words associated with the former Field Marshall, and I suspect Joan Baez and Bayard Rustin had no clue who he was. Thanom ruled Thailand harshly from 1963 to 1973 until massive public protests over his rule exploded into violence and sent him into exile abroad. He remained such an incendiary figure that, when he returned to Thailand in 1976 to be ordained a novice monk, it triggered massive protests that ended violently. To this day, no one has been held accountable for the scores of people, mostly students, killed on the streets of Bangkok in protests in October 1973 and again in 1976.

More than three decades later, justice appears to continually be denied to the people of Cambodia and Thailand. After six years and at a cost of $200 million, the international-led Khmer Rouge tribunal is likely to secure no more than three convictions. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and many of his lieutenants such as Ta Mok and Ieng Sary have died without ever being brought to trial. On the upside, at least the Khmer Rouge period can be taught in Cambodia’s schools and its tragic legacy openly discussed and reflected on, helping ensure that history will not repeat itself. People who suffered so egregiously under the Khmer Rouge are now exhibiting the courage to speak about the horror experienced between 1975 and 1979.

Nonetheless, Cambodians must question if justice has truly been served. Cambodia remains plagued by poverty, nepotism, corruption, and land grabs. Time will tell if the recent parliamentary elections will lead to reforms to address these challenges. Demographics indicate that in the near future more than 50 percent of Cambodia’s population will be under the age of 25, born almost a decade after the Khmer Rouge era. Exposure to telecommunications and social media enables this generation to expect and demand more from their government. They are not willing to blithely accept that present times are much better than those under Pol Pot, and hope for nothing more. While there’s no doubt life is better now, a younger generation of Cambodians obviously feel that the bar should not remain so perpetually low.

Mass protests erupted in Bangkok in the last few weeks over a controversial amnesty bill that was crafted to absolve anyone who may have engaged in any illegal activities from 2004 to August 2013, including the military that overthrew a civilian government headed by Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006. Yesterday, the Senate defused tensions by rejecting the bill as drafted 141-0, While the government could resubmit a fresh version of the bill after a cooling-off period of 180 days, it has sought to relieve tensions by assuring that it will accept the Senate vote and not pursue the bill further at this time. The bill was unpopular among a broad segment of Thai society, as it would offer not only amnesty to political demonstrators during the amnesty period, but would also absolve former Prime Minister Thaksin from his abuse of power and corruption convictions. He was sentenced to jail in absentia and is in exile, living mostly in Dubai.  Mr. Thaksin is probably the most incendiary figure since former Field Marshall Thanom. But like in the 1970s, this amnesty bill would fail to hold accountable or bring to justice anyone responsible for the 91 people killed and 2,100 seriously wounded in a series of prolonged protests in Bangkok from March to May 2010.

Although economic and social developments have improved and Cambodians and Thais, in general, are much better off than they were 34 years ago, a culture of impunity still exists in both Cambodia and Thailand. No one in either nation has really ever had their day in court. Civil society is stronger (it was non-existent in Cambodia in the 1970s and 1980s) and people want their say, as evidenced by what is happening in the streets of Phnom Penh and Bangkok. Cambodians and Thais from all walks of life want their societies governed well, predicated on rule of law, accountability, and transparency. Working toward this endeavor can help reconcile and mitigate political divisions in both nations. Cambodia and Thailand’s leaders should take this to heart. If this can happen, then perhaps the peace and justice Joan Baez and Bayard Rustin called for 34 years ago can come to fruition.

John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

2 comments on this post:

  1. One thing that is glossed over in this article and many articles in the American media is that ‘civil society’ can take a nasty uncivil turn when demagogues like the Opposition CNRP Leader Sam Rainsy begin to play discriminatory ethnic politics against the Vietnamese minority in Cambodia. While the CPP is guilty of over-reaction and massive abuse of human rights in the recent crackdown on protestors it has to be said Sam Rainsy’s bigotry is fueling violence here. The American media seem to be the most negligent in tackling this issue of ethnic hatred pretending that Sam Rainsy is some sort of democrat. The UK Guardian has a good article on the subject: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2013/sep/04/cambodia-elections-vietnamese-voting

  2. Walter Naegle:

    Dear John Brandon,
    Thank you for mentioning Bayard in your column. The work he did with the International Rescue Committee, especially on behalf of the Southeast Asian “Boat People,” was particularly close to his heart during the last decade of his life. I will be accepting a Presidential Medal of Freedom on his behalf next week. Although it is largely in recognition for his work with the African American civil rights movement, I will have his commitment to peace and justice for all in my heart and mind next Wednesday.

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