CONTROVERSY surrounding the shooting of the teenage Lahu activist, who was killed by Thai soldiers on March 17, continues to grow, with claims of witness intimidation and calls for CCTV footage of the incident to be released to the public.
Chaiyaphum Pasae, ethnic rights activist and campaigner for stateless people’s rights, was travelling through an army checkpoint in Northern Thailand when he was shot dead by a soldier. However, since the incident was initially reported, conflicting accounts of exactly what happen have emerged.
According to the military, the car Chaiyaphum was travelling in was stopped by soldiers from the army’s 5th Cavalry Regiment Task Force and the Pha Muang Task Force at the Ban Rin Luang village checkpoint in a routine check.
While the car was being searched for drugs, Chaiyaphum ran from the vehicle into nearby jungle. He was about to throw a hand grenade at the military personnel when one soldier shot at Chaiyaphum in self-defence. A military spokesperson confirmed that 2,800 methamphetamine tablets were found in the car that Chaiyaphum had been travelling.
However, the army’s account of what happened has been disputed by an eyewitness who said in a television interview that a group of soldiers physically assaulted Chaiyaphum at the checkpoint, and as the teenager attempted to escape he was shot by one of the soldiers.
According to the witness:
“The soldier, he was the leader or whatever, I don’t know, shouted ‘Shoot him! Shoot him dead!’ So they fired three shots.”
Supporters and friends of Chaiyaphum have been unconvinced by the military’s explanation of events, claiming that Chaiyaphum was an upright member of the community, and a gifted songwriter who composed ethnic folk songs and taught young children about hill-tribe culture. Community members also dispute the claim that Chaiyaphum had any involvement with drugs.
Chaiyaphum had also produced a number of short documentaries about hill-tribe culture, several of which were broadcast on the television network Thai PBS. The teenager was awarded a prize at the 16th Thai Short Film and Video Festival for his short film, “Belt and Comb”.
Brad Adams, executive director of the Asian division of Human Rights Watch spoke out about the controversy surrounding Chaiyaphum’s death saying, “The claim that soldiers killed an outspoken young ethnic activist in self-defense after he had been held by soldiers sets the alarm bells ringing.”
He added, “Instead of accepting at face value the account of the soldiers who shot Chaiyaphum, the authorities need to thoroughly and impartially investigate this case and make their findings public.”
Amid growing debate, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha announced he would order a probe into the incident, explaining, ‘the case will be probed for transparency with evidence and witnesses.’
However, in a worrying development, one individual who had witnessed the incident now claims to have received silent threats.
The witness, who was a friend of Chaiyaphum, told the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) he found a bullet in front of his house on Wednesday night. It is understood the individual has now sought witness protection, and NHRC claims that other community members are now too scared to discuss the incident with investigators.
In a bid to determine exactly what happened, a campaign calling on the authorities to release CCTV footage from the checkpoint has been launched on the petition website Change.org.
It’s unclear how the police or the military will respond to such calls, but with the online community openly questioning the official explanation of events, it may be the only way to put an end to the rumours and conspiracy theories.