Chiang Mai Citylife > CityNews > Features and Analysis > Justice in Thailand: 15 years for Picking Mushrooms, and getting away with Murder

Justice in Thailand: 15 years for Picking Mushrooms, and getting away with Murder

Literally, ladies and gentlemen, in Thailand you can get away with murder. It seems it’s not that difficult either. You require two essential endowments, one often begets the other: money/status. Money and status can buy justice, or pervert it, or at least make things disappear.

However, if you are unfortunate enough to be a part of the majority, the hoi polloi who are persona non grata in the repulsive system of patronage that protects, as if by divine right, the miscreants of wealth and entitlement, you’ll likely experience the full force of the law if you should break it…or even if only accused of breaking it.

Figuratively, justice in Thailand is sometimes full of shit, it is often unjust and unfair. The courts do not treat all men equally (even though they were ostensibly founded on this principle); the jails are bursting with poor folk on petty drug mule charges (demographic evidence shows us that it’s almost only poor people who act lawlessly); wholesale murder is swept under the rather encumbered rug of injustice; scapegoats in murder cases are a dime a dozen and often brutally tortured.

A fair trial, so say many people who’ve been through the judicial system, is something of an oxymoronic term. This is why so many people, guilty or innocent, don’t fight the charges against them. It’s also due to the fact that you could spend years in remand prison waiting to be sentenced. The good news is, if you are sent down, and have the money, you can live pretty well, as long as you pay for better conditions and don’t mind a lot of extra taxes on your drugs, alcohol, and sashimi.

You can get away with a lot within the extra-tenuous confines of Thai justice: Wholesale killing – the atrocious red drum’ murders (3,000 plus people burnt alive) are still unaccounted for – a massacre at a university, or merely a murder over the loss of some face. You might cause a highway smash that obliterates nine bodies, or shoot a guy in a nightclub; or if you own a Ferrari, you can kill cops on your way home from the pubdon’t worry, the butler did it.

I suggest you detonate all these bloody hyperlinks I’ve been planting in this story. As I just said, verbatim, to the new girl sitting across from me, “the amount of injustice and corruption I’ve read or been told about while working here is terrifying.”

When you look under the rug, and I mean really take a good look, you’ll be terrified too.

Thailand is progressing, we can read all about it, every day, in the press. In spite of the obligatory coup every few years and the attendant murders of protesters, and some MIA (Missing in Accountability) politicians that sanctioned the killing, Thailand is making real progress; it’s heading forward, developing, we’re told, rising into the clouds of a sparkling mall supernova. Though perhaps not all Thais are spunking it up on the constantly erect GDP. In spite of fiscal growth, it is still very much in the Dark Ages in terms of justice.

If, for instance, you happen to be a farmer, a mushroom picker, then the word progress and justice might be a little lost on you. 

Kalasin

Kalasin was the location of a series of horrific murders of mostly young men that happened around 2004. The police, it was discovered, were the perpetrators of these murders.

In one case they crushed a 17 year old man’s testicles, dragged his body along the street by handcuffs, strangled him to death, and then hanged his body from a beam (graphic image). Six policemen were arrested.

In these cases, witnesses were put into a witness protection programme – some had been threatened.  A human rights advocate called this, “…an unbelievable display of reckless indifference to life and a basic failure of common sense.”

The twenty something other bodies were never tagged with a killer’s name. Each case remains unsolved.

It took years of campaigns from the families of the victims, Thai lawyers working pro bono, and Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) before the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) got involved. Six policemen were finally charged with one murder in 2009.

While appealing their sentence the six were compensated 100,000 baht for “having been found guilty resulting from carrying about their duties at the Kalasin police station.”

In view of how difficult it is (they remain free men today, appealing the charges) to sentence these killers, it’s fortunate for them they just tortured and murdered a young man, and didn’t do anything as heinous as picking mushrooms…where they shouldn’t have been picking mushrooms.

Kalasin, known for its dinosaurs, extrajudicial killings, and presently for the 15 year prison sentence of a husband and wife who, it seems, are on the wrong side of justice.  

Udom Siri-on (51) and his wife Daeng Siri-on (48) were recently convicted of illegal logging, though they say they were only collecting mushrooms in a Kalasin National Park. It was reported that the couple had been picking wild mushrooms when police were involved in an operation to arrest illegal loggers. When they saw the police the husband and wife fled on a motorbike, but after police traced the bike the couple were arrested and later charged with the offense of illegal logging.

Their case became known to the public when Channel 3 news programme Khao Sam Miti aired a story of the obscene sentence, and subsequently campaigns began online in support of the couple. The general feeling towards the case is what many Thai netizens are saying is another example of double standards. One poster on Panthip.com wrote, “only dogs and the poor go to jail.”

According to the programme Udom and Daeng confessed to illegal logging – they reiterated that they were picking wild mushrooms, not logging – because their lawyer told them they would receive a lenient sentence. They received 15 years each from the Provincial Court.

In contrast to the six policemen who were blessed with the largess of their sympathetic superiors, who in spite of their brutal crimes and threats to witnesses were granted bail and the right to an appeal, the couple were refused the right to appeal their lengthy sentence due to their confession.

Following public outrage the Supreme Court gave instructions to the lower court to look at the case again. Udom was later released from jail due to the state of his health, but his wife remains incarcerated.

I contacted Sunai Phasuk a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, and an expert in political, security and foreign policy analysis in the context of human rights and democratisation in Thailand and Burma. It was because of his investigation into the Kalasin murders that I first saw his name.

“The police have appealed, and none have been sentenced,” he told me after I explained to him that I could not find any current information about the six policemen in Kalasin. “They deserved condemnation,” he went on, “and instead they received sympathy…This is a glaring example of violations in relation to human rights and to how the law is enforced in Thailand.

“I was in Kalasin and I wondered why there were so many coffin shops,” he said, explaining that the rogue police were executing so many people it opened up a local business niche: coffin shops. “There were always dead bodies, and not enough coffins,” Sunai said.  

Sunai was well aware of the recent case of the mushroom pickers. I told him I was writing a piece on the leniency shown to the police and the harsh treatment of the couple, and I added that I understood these were extreme cases, and perhaps I couldn’t take them as representations of the entire justice system. He told me I certainly could.

He explained, “There’s no impartial standard in the system of justice of Thailand. It’s tended by social disparity. It depends on who you are as to what treatment you’ll receive.”

Leniency for grisly murders, he said, and harsh treatment for minor crimes is not aberrant, but the norm.

“The police received bail,” he said, “and no disciplinary action was taken against them, while compared to the couple, who have been shown no mercy from any part of the justice system. They’ve been treated harshly from beginning to end. People of lower status clearly receive different treatment. This is another example of double standards in the Thai judiciary system.”