Five years ago, Chaiyaphum Pasae, a young Lahu rights defender, and Abe Sae Mu, an ethnic Lisu man, were shot dead by soldiers in northern Thailand. While Abe’s family received financial compensation, Chaiyaphum’s family continues to seek justice and hold the military accountable.
Two mothers who lost their sons in separate shootings close to the same military checkpoint in northern Thailand have spent years on a quest for justice. Napoi Pasae, an ethnic Lahu woman, and Ahmeema Sae Mu from an ethnic Lisu community in Chiang Mai province wanted to hold the military accountable for the death of their sons five years ago.
The men, Abe Sae Mu and Chaiyaphum Pasae, were shot dead by soldiers in Chiang Mai’s Chiang Dao district in two separate incidents in 2017, only one month apart. The military claimed the soldiers acted in self-defence in both cases and accused the two men of being drug dealers.
Insisting their sons had no involvement with drugs, Napoi and Ahmeema cast doubt on the official version of events that led to the shootings. In 2019, they lodged a joint lawsuit seeking total compensation of 11 million baht (328,000 US dollars) from the military under the Civil Liability of Officers Act B.E. 2539 (1996).
Chaiyaphum was an enthusiastic advocate of indigenous peoples’ rights and culture. The teenage human rights defender was a member of several Lahu community groups and a skilled musician and filmmaker. He taught indigenous youth to make music to stay away from drugs. He was also active in the movement to help stateless people in northern Thailand to secure citizenship.
Abe was a member of an indigenous Lisu community located in the mountains of Chiang Mai province. His family is Christian and makes a living in agriculture. Abe was the main breadwinner for his family.
Abe was shot and killed by soldiers just past the Ban Rin Luang checkpoint on 15 February 2017. According to his brother, he had been on the way to the family’s farm. The military later said the Lisu man attacked the soldiers first, causing them to shoot back in self-defence. They also claimed that Abe carried two sachets of heroin in his shoulder bag.
Almost exactly a month later, 17-year-old Chaiyaphum and his friend were stopped at the same military checkpoint at about 11 a.m. Shortly after, the young Lahu man was dead.
An autopsy later found that a bullet had entered Chaiyaphum’s body through his left forearm, damaging the aorta, heart, and lungs. As a result, he died immediately.
A week later, the 3rd region army commander said in a press conference that the soldiers had found 2,800 methamphetamine pills in the air filter of Chaiyaphum’s car. They attempted to arrest him, but he escaped and tried to throw a grenade at the officers. One soldier had to fire a shot in response to defend himself, according to the military.
The military has not released any footage from CCTV cameras installed at the checkpoint to verify the account.
Quest for justice
In March 2020, a court ordered the military to pay compensation of 824,180 baht (about 24,500 US dollars) plus interest to the family of Abe.
But the claim to financial compensation by Chaiyaphum’s family was denied almost five years after his death. In January 2022, the Bangkok Appeal Court upheld an earlier ruling to dismiss the family claim for compensation stating the soldiers had acted in self-defence.
“I feel sad every time the court delivers a verdict. Chaiyaphum was the bedrock of our family and my beloved child. But we won’t give up, we have to fight this until the end,” said Napoi on the day of the ruling
The family’s lawyer said they would continue fighting the case and file a new lawsuit with the Civil Court.
“If the world afforded equal dignity to everyone, all the suffering could be stopped. And if people were treated equally, we could end our quest for justice. Everyone has value, no matter how small they are,” said Maitree Chamroensuksakul, a Lahu human rights defender who has been helping the family of Chaiyaphum.
In this photo essay, Chiang Mai based photographer Jittrapon Kaicome provides a look into the everyday life of Abe’s and Chaiyaphum’s communities. Too often family members are featured in the media, either on the steps of court rooms or during press conferences in Bangkok. For this photo-story the photographer spent time with the families of Napoi and Ahmeema in their communities, capturing their lives after the death of their sons.
Jittrapon Kaicome is a Thai independent photojournalist based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He photographed the two families during 2021, visiting them on multiple occasions with the aim of illustrating their lives in their own communities. More of Jittrapon’s work can be found on www.jittraponkaicome.com.