By Chak Sopheap
Published on UPI Asia, December 23, 2009
Niigata, Japan — Phorn Sarith, a 37-year-old Cambodian logger, died when Thai soldiers reportedly fired indiscriminately on 25 loggers working in the Dangrek mountains in Oddar Meanchey, a Cambodian province on the Thai-Cambodian border, last Saturday.
Since September Thai soldiers have killed six Cambodian loggers, wounded several more and arrested others. While loggers are warned by authorities in the province not to stray across the porous border into Thailand, most end up crossing it to earn more money from illegal logging, in order to feed their families.
Although such cases have increased, the Thai government has done little to understand the situation or conduct proper investigations into the cross-border intrusions.
According to an October report released by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, several cases of killings and mistreatment of Cambodians by the Thai military were reported in the three-month period from August to October. One case mentions that 12 Cambodians, reportedly missing for nearly a month, were later found to have been arrested and detained by Thai soldiers in August 2009 on suspicion of illegal logging. Two other allegedly illegal loggers were found dead in the same month; the Thai military claimed to have shot them in self-defense.
In another case, 16 Cambodian loggers were arrested, tried and handed prison terms ranging from three months to nine years by the Ubon Provincial Court in Thailand, for illegal logging. The sentences were excessive and Thai authorities reportedly mistreated the loggers. Some were brought to court with their hands and legs chained and shackled, the CCHR report said.
In another case, Thai soldiers burned 16-year-old Yon Rith to death during an illegal logging mission with other villagers in September. Although the Thai government denied the cause of death, evidence shows that soldiers killed him.
Such cruel killing by the Thai military, which enjoys impunity, was seen in a number of incidents during the late 1970s and 1980s. While the killings have not stopped, the Cambodian government has also been negligent in its role to prevent citizens from illegally crossing over to neighboring Thailand.
Although the media and human rights organizations have reported many incidents of Cambodians killed by the Thai military after illegally crossing the border, there has been no satisfactory explanation by the Thai government. Instead, it has proclaimed that the rule of law prevails in the country and that it has an independent judiciary.
Thai authorities have also failed to employ preventive measures to stop illegal crossings of its border. The issue has been overshadowed to some extent by border disputes and military skirmishes between the two nations.
The continuous arbitrary killing and mistreatment of Cambodians are clear violations by the Thai government of U.N. rights conventions and of basic principles of human rights, including the right to life, the right to a court hearing on criminal charges and the right to be protected from cruel punishment, as guaranteed by the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Thailand is a signatory.
Article 1 of the Convention Against Torture precisely defines the term “torture” as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind.”
Article 2 of the CAT also asserts that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
As a signatory to CAT, the Thai government must take immediate and unconditional steps to fulfill its legal obligation to respect human rights, especially as it says that the rule of law prevails in the country.
If the Thai government says that it has an independent judiciary, then it must end impunity for those who kill and mistreat civilians, including Cambodian illegal loggers or any such immigrants.
At the Bangkok launch of the United Nations Development Program’s report on “Overcoming barriers: Human mobility and development,” on Oct. 5, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva proudly impressed audiences by saying that Thailand respects migrants’ rights.
“We realize that the most effective way to protect these migrants is to legalize their status and bring them into the formal labor market,” he said. “The migration is simply an expression of the freedom and desire of each individual to seek better opportunities in life.”
If what Abhisit said is true, then the Thai government must acknowledge the rights of the poor Cambodian loggers who cross into Thailand looking for better opportunities to sustain their families. As a civilized nation, the Thai government must fulfill its commitment and obligation to respect human rights.
(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog, www.sopheapfocus.com, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)