The killing of Chaiyapoom Pasae is fraught with confusion, and yet the military has drawn its own verdict
Third Army Region Commander Lt-General Wijak Banpasop is typical of high-ranking military officers in appearing less capable of managing his public pronouncements than he is of commanding troops. He set out last week to conduct damage control on the internationally
condemned Army killing of Lahu activist Chaiyapoom Pasae, only to have the attempt backfire on him and the ruling junta.
Wijak was the latest in a stream of military and junta representatives seeking to defend the soldier who pulled the trigger on Chaiyapoom at a checkpoint in Chiang Mai’s Chiang Dao district on March 17. They
disregard the need for reticence while investigations are pending – including one by the National Human Rights Commission. Both Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his deputy, Prawit Wongsuwan, have tried to convince the public that the soldier who gunned down the young man acted in self-defence when “threatened” with a hand grenade.
In spite of their version of events being in dispute, the generals insist Chaiyapoom was a drug dealer resisting arrest and seeking to hurt the troops when he was shot dead. The Third Army commander claims to possess closed-circuit surveillance video from the scene showing Chaiyapoom refusing to cooperate with soldiers, but he could not produce it when rights activists asked, saying it’s been forwarded to Army chief General Chalermchai Sittisart. That alleged video evidence is now the subject of an online petition at Change.org.
Wijak pronounced verdict on the affair. “I personally think the soldier involved did not use excessive force. He just fired one shot at an arm, but the bullet happened to be fatal.” Later he added, “If I were the soldier at the scene, I might have fired [the M-16 assault rifle] in automatic mode.” The general seemed to imply that the soldier erred in firing only one shot since the target might have escaped, whereas a spray of automatic fire would have negated that risk.
No one in the Army has come forward to suggest Chaiyapoom might have been unjustly shot. Instead the top brass has sought only to shield their soldiers from criticism. In doing so they are, unwittingly or not, offering further evidence that a culture of impunity exists in the military. We are being told once again that armed men in the uniform of the state can kill anyone if they deem it necessary.
Nor does the Army intend to conduct its own probe to discover who was in charge at the scene and why precisely a soldier opened fire. In fact Wijak said he had instructed the unit running the checkpoint to keep up the morale of the soldier who pulled the trigger. “In my eyes he just carried out his duty. If he is deemed a villain, probably no soldiers will have the courage to take action in the future.”
According to a long-time friend of Chaiyapoom and others who have come to his defence, he was no drug dealer, and in fact spoke out against the use of illegal drugs. Police counter that he had long been involved with a narcotics syndicate and – citing the military – say a hand grenade was found on his body and a knife and 2,800 amphetamine tablets in the car in which he was riding. Unusually, the police had none of this to put on public display. People who rushed to the scene on hearing about the shooting saw no sign of pills or weapons. An eyewitness account of Chaiyapoom allegedly being pulled from the car and beaten by soldiers has been brushed aside.
With so many doubts surrounding the incident, the Army should be treading far more carefully in mounting its own defence.