BANGKOK — Shortly after soldiers stopped and killed a 17-year-old ethnic activist at a checkpoint in northern Thailand, the army said it had incontrovertible proof they had acted in self-defense: security camera footage from the scene.
An army commander even told reporters he would have shot Chaiyaphum Pasae himself after watching the footage. But the lawyers representing his family said they never got to view the video of the March 2017 killing, despite multiple requests. And now it seems they never will.
To their bafflement, the military recently told them such video did not exist at all. A lawyer said the statement not only contradicts previous claims made by the army, but could also potentially pose as an irregularity in the legal process over Chaiyaphum’s death.
“The army said they had watched the video already, and we believed them. They never said there was no video,” attorney Sumitchai Hattasan said in an interview. “We’re very confused.”
Chaiyaphum, who was well known in activist circles for advocating minority rights, was shot to death after a group of soldiers stopped and searched his car in Chiang Mai province.
The military said they were searching for narcotics, and Chaiyaphum – himself a member of the Lahu tribe – allegedly tried to throw a grenade at them when they found drugs in his car.
However, witnesses at the scene told the media Chaiyaphum was unarmed and trying to flee the soldiers when they opened fire, killing him. His family soon filed a charge of murder against the security forces.
As proof of their innocence, the military said a security camera captured the incident. Regional army commander Lt. Gen. Vichak Siribansop went as far as saying he would have switched to full-auto and fired at Chaiyaphum for resisting arrest.
Yet in a letter sent to the family’s lawyer team earlier this week, the military said such video did not exist. Army and local police investigators checked the hard disk of the camera together and found that the footage was already taped over due to a lack of space, the letter said.
The mention of police investigators reviewing the tape was a red flag, Sumitchai said, noting that a provincial police commander told reporters the police never touched the hard disk.
Instead, deputy Chiang Mai police chief Mongkol Samphawapol said in a May 13, 2017, news conference that the disk was sealed and sent to the regional forensics department for inspection right away.
The head of that department, Maj. Gen. Thawatchai Mekprasertsuk, told Khaosod English in May 2017 that they were unable to see what was on the tape because they didn’t have the right program to open the file.
“Police must answer this question: Did they check the video with the soldiers before they sent it to the forensics department or not?” Sumitchai said.
Speaking by phone Friday, Col. Mongkol said he was unaware of police officers under his command reviewing the video but could not confirm for sure if anyone had.
“I cannot give any answer because I wasn’t there,” Mongkol, who maintained he never saw the video, said in an interview. “I was only a part of the team.”
Regional army commander Vichak could not be reached for comment as of publication time.
Sumitchai said the court case for Chaiyaphum’s killing continues, and he said the Lahu activist’s family may file charges of negligence against the police for failing to secure crucial evidence before it was erased.
“It’s pretty clear by now that we will never get to see this video,” the lawyer said.