“I wish I could kill them,” food vendor Somporn said of the former prime minister and the policemen he blames for the death of his son, found tied to a tree in a public park in the northeastern town of Kalasin.
Pravit Sattawut died seven years ago, aged 21 — killed, rights groups suspect, by the town’s police as part of Thaksin’s notorious crackdown on drugs, which outraged critics for its alleged extrajudicial murders and abuses.
The anger of Pravit’s father goes against the grain here in the Thai northeast.
This is the heartland of support for Thaksin, a tycoon-turned-premier who now lives in exile but has said he hopes to return to Thailand by the end of the year if his political allies win a July 3 election.
Before a coup deposed him in 2006, Thaksin won over rural hearts with his populist platform. His get-tough approach to tackling the searing trade in drugs, particularly methamphetamines, was also hugely popular.
Now his youngest sister is running to be premier, and widely seen as his political proxy.
Yingluck Shinawatra told AFP in a recent interview that she would “handle the drugs policy with care (for) human rights” — but some fear abuses could resume if her party wins with Thaksin as its de facto leader.
Thailand saw an 88 percent jump in murder cases during the main phase of Thaksin’s drugs campaign, from February to April 2003, according to a 2008 report by a Thai special committee on anti-drugs policy.
The report said there were 2,873 murders in the period, 1,370 of them drugs-related.
Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Thailand researcher, said it was “quite frightening” to think that those behind the drugs war could soon return to the frontline of Thai politics.
“As the same political actors look like they’re going to come back to relevance, it becomes more relevant again — not just the last ‘War on Drugs’ but a future one,” he said.
The government at the time said most of the victims were drug dealers shooting each other, but it appeared to condone the deaths and encourage police to take a zero tolerance approach.
“The drug sellers have been ruthless with the Thai people, with our children, so if we are ruthless with them it is not a big deal,” Thaksin said as he launched the 2003 campaign, which called on authorities to draw up blacklists of suspects.
Many of the killings took place after those who were blacklisted left police stations where they had gone to turn themselves in or to clarify their status, according to Amnesty.
In Pravit’s case, he was arrested in Kalasin town in February 2004 for getting into a fight, then released on bail before returning to the police station the next day to collect his mobile phone, his father Somporn said.
He never saw his son alive again.
“The doctor said he died from suffocation. The next day I opened the coffin and found bruises on his ribs, like someone had beaten him,” he said.
Pravit had been jailed before for drugs possession, but had gone through a rehab programme and was a month off being certified clean when he died, according to Somporn. His girlfriend was also two months pregnant.
Today, a large plaque in front of Kalasin’s town hall, dated 2002, proudly proclaims a “drugs free province” after an initial hardline campaign in the area, which earned praise from Thaksin and inspired his nationwide approach.
But activists say deaths such as Pravit’s led to a legacy of ongoing police brutality and impunity, with just a handful of Thai police prosecuted in connection with the country’s drugs war.
“The systematic cover up by high-ranking police officers at all levels has allowed abusive officers to remain in power and continue to terrorise the public,” said Sunai Phasuk, a Thai analyst with Human Rights Watch.
Rights groups recognise at least 27 such cases in Kalasin that implicate police during Thaksin’s premiership, and Sunai said there could be many more that have not come to light because of “ingrained impunity”.
Only one of these cases has reached court: Six policemen have been charged with the premeditated murder of a 17-year-old found hanging in July 2004 several days after his arrest for stealing a motorbike.
His aunt Pikul Phromchan, an activist seeking justice in the Kalasin deaths, lives in fear for her life under witness protection while the case drags on — the hearing was recently delayed until December.
“I fight as best as I can but I don’t have much hope in the justice system,” she said.