The rise of systematic violence: observations on the attacks against political activists

On the evening of 2 June 2019, Sirawith Seritiwat aka “Ja New” was attacked by five or six men at the bus stop on Ratchadapisek 7 in Bangkok. The ambush took place just three days before the Parliament was set to vote to elect Thailand’s 30th Prime Minister and the day Ja New announced he would submit names of those who agreed to urge Senators to not vote during the election of the Prime Minister.

Ja New has sustained grave injuries from the attack as the assailants intentionally hit his head many times, hospitalizing him with numerous wounds. It is still unknown how many days he will have to stay in hospital.

Sirawith Seritiwat has reported the case with the Huay Kwang Police Station and received initial treatment from emergency medical services.

This is the tenth attack against activists – Ja New was the third person after Ekkachai Hongkangwan and Anurak Jeantawanich aka “Ford the Red Path” to have been the target of a violent attack. Ekkachai alone has suffered seven such attacks and two acts of arson on his car, while Ford was attacked twice.  

In light of this string of attacks, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) has several observations to make as it seems the attacks are on the rise and growing increasingly violent given their patterns and frequency. Meanwhile, all cases reported have seen no progress in terms of investigation.

Ekkachai has gone to visit Ford after the attack. Ekkachai himself was just attacked on 13 May 2019.

The frequency and the timing of the attacks 

As to the frequency and timing of such violent attacks against political activists, in 2018, it was Ekkachai himself who became the sole target of four attacks altogether, two in January and another two in August.  

But within the first half of 2019, three activists have already been physically assaulted in six separate incidences, or one attack a month. However, if the two arsons of Ekkachai’s vehicle are included, the number of such attacks would amount to eight, just within the first half of the year.  

The attacks are similar as they have happened after the victims have engaged in political activism. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights believes the motive of the attacks is likely related to their political activism rather than any personal grudge.  

Initially, the attacks were triggered right after the activists had completed their activities, particularly for Ekkachai. But in the three latest attacks, they happened just before the activists were about to launch an activity. For example, the latest ambush against Ekkachai in front of the Bangkok Criminal Court, which happened just after he announced he would campaign in front of the Vietnamese Embassy about the disappearance of Thai political self-exiles in Vietnam.  

Meanwhile, Ford was attacked on route to his campaign in front of the TOT Public Company Limited where the first session of the House of Representative was to commence; and Ja New’s case was a mixed bag.  He was ambushed after setting up a booth in front of the Bangkok Cultural Center to urge people to sign the petition to demand the Senators not vote to elect the Prime Minister and after announcing his intention to submit the names alongside the demands during the meeting of the Parliament on 5 June 2019.

As the attacks after the activities failed to deter the activists from persisting, the assailants changed their tactic to launch the attacks just before the activities, to cause severe injuries which would make it impossible for the activists to carry out their campaigns as announced. What follows is media coverage which tends to distance itself from political motive and a media circus to paint the incident as a physical assault derived from personal motive.  

The attacks also intend to send a signal and create a chilling effect among people who want to join the anti-junta campaigns and the campaigns to demand justice and democracy. By reminding people of the price they have to pay, they attempt to deter people who are informed of the incidents. These attacks have become collateral damage the activists have to consider before launching any political activity. Leaving aside the infringement on the safety of the victims’, the string of attacks against activists have impacted the public’s right to freedom of expression.  

Evolution of the systematic violence  

From the attacks against Ekkachai to the ambush against Ja New, a clear pattern of tactic and levels of violence could be surmised. The attacks against the three activists have started from just throwing a punch or fermented fish sauce at them. They have since escalated to physical assaults with the use of wooden sticks or iron bars which seem to inflict more severe wounds on the bodies of the victims.  

Also, the number of assailants has increased over the time from just one or two persons when Ekkachai was initially attacked, to three or four later. Ford was attacked by six individuals whereas Ja New was severely injured by at least five or six individuals. In the latest cases, the assailants have put their helmets on to cover their faces. It has happened this way similarly in all attacks against each of the activists.

Judging from the number of people involved with the attacks, the acts have not been committed by just a single person, but are the result of a well-coordinated attempt from several individuals. An attempt has been made to monitor movements and schedules of the targets, and a plan has been well crafted to identify the right timing to launch the attacks. Some individuals were also deployed to prevent the victims from reaching out for help during the attacks. It is apparent that such attacks have been made possible by the involvement of a number of people.  

The attempt to damage Ekkachai’s property might be different. However violent and destructive the methods used were, they were not intended to let the fire damage his house and cause his death since the car that was set on fire was parked some distance from the house, he lived in.  

Footage of CCTV in front of Ekkachai’s house 

Even then, the destruction of his vehicle has made it difficult for Ekkachai to get to places and to participate in activities by himself. Ekkachai has to rely on public transportation again, after he has changed from such mode of transportation to driving his own car to ensure his safety as he had been subjected to a string of attacks before then.  

It could be assumed that a resumption of public transportation which was once Ekkachai’s vulnerability would make him vulnerable again and would be capitalized on by those who want to target him. The loss of his vehicle would make him vulnerable again. The assumption was in fact proven by the fact that the assailants were able to track his movement and to get on the same bus with him before launching the attack against him when he got off the bus by kicking until he fell down from the bus and them getting off the bus to continue beating him up at the bus stop in front of the Criminal Court.   

No progress made to bring the perpetrators to justice 

Despite the 12 attacks (nine against Ekkachai, two against Ford and one against Ja New), the police managed to arrest assailants in just three cases including the first two since the assailant disclosed his identity while attacking Ekkachai and he was the same perpetrator in both cases. In the third case, the three offenders ambushed Ekkachai while he was walking in an alley toward his house in August 2018. Only one perpetrator has been arrested where the other two remain at large.

In the latter case involving physical assault, one person has been indicted. The hearings are scheduled to take place during 16-17 January 2020 or one year and four months after the incident. It has been reported that the alleged offender has until now refused to give any information or to cooperate with the law enforcement officials.

Even though the attacks against activists have become more violent in 2019 and have involved more offenders, none of them have been brought to justice thus far.  

Even though in most cases, the assailants have put on helmets to hide their identities and have removed the license plates of their vehicles, the incidences took place in a public place installed with CCTV. An effort could have been made to track their escape routes by corroborating evidence including the CCTV footage. But until now, there has been no progress in terms of its investigation after several months and even though the incidents could have taken place clearly in the CCTV coverage.  

The failure of the state to bring to justice the perpetrators has contributed to the perpetuation of the attacks and it seems the perpetrators have no fear for anything.  

The expansion of targets 

That none of the perpetrators have been brought to justice has not just contributed to a higher frequency of the incidents, it has also given rise to more targets. Ekkachai was the sole target in 2018, but this year has seen an increase of targets including Ford who was attacked in March and then Ja New, the latest victim. 

It could be assumed that the number of activists who have become a target of physical assault has increased in the first half of year. The number is tipped to increase as another prominent student activist from Thammasat University, Parit Chiwarak, aka “penguin” told the press that on 1 June he was threatened via a phone call and told he and Ja New were an impending target of physical assault. Ja New was assaulted on 2 June, as detailed above.  

Apart from the broad picture of the case, it should also be noted that the attacks have mostly taken place in bustling public places including the ones close to a governmental office, at the bus stops, in the middle of a crowded street, etc. It demonstrates how outrageous the acts of the assailants were. As to the case of Ford, eyewitnesses reported seeing an object at the waists of the assailants which looked like firearms. It has prevented them from giving Ford any help, although the assailants were in fact armed with wooden sticks and iron bars. 

That activists have been attacked with weapons right in public places has given rise to the climate of fear. People who have become the targets do not know when they will become targeted again, how they will be attacked and how violently the assailants would abuse them.  

It is far from certain that the attacks were meant to be fatal as after beating the victims until they sustained certain injuries, the assailants ceased. Also, among the weapons used were wooden sticks and iron bars which are less lethal than knives or guns. But the violence could escalate as the three victims have sustained more serious injuries over the time and have had to be hospitalized. In the last five incidences, it was clear the assailants aimed their weapons at the heads of the victims. Ford was hit in his arms as he raised them to protect his head. He did not suffer major injuries as he managed to disarm the assailants. By aiming the weapons at vital parts of the body, it could have severely, possibly fatally, injured the victims.

Picture showing the Ekkachai’s head wounds after being hit by a wooden stick on 5 March 2019 Picture courtesy: Ekkachai Hongkangwan facebook
The appearance of the wounds sustained by Ekkachai after physical abuse on 13 May 2019 Picture courtesy: Anurak Jeantawanich
Ford and the wounds inflicted on him on 26 May 2019 Picture courtesy: Anurak Jeantawanich
Head wounds sustained by Ja New after the attack on 2 June 2019 Picture courtesy: Ratthapol Supasopon

After all, no one has been brought to justice and the investigation has seen no progress. This would ensure that such attacks will be further perpetuated as the perpetrators have not been arrested. The political violence is tipped to rise, and there remains a serious risk that it could translate into the fatality of a political activist.