Judge Khanakorn Pianchana, 50, had been serving as deputy presiding judge of the Yala Provincial Court.
In October 2019 he made world headlines when he claimed to have been ordered by a more senior judge to re-write a decision in which he acquitted five people charged with murder. Judge Khanakorn found there was not enough evidence to convict the men. They had allegedly been connected with an insurgency in the south of the country.
Faced with instructions to issue a finding with which he did not agree, Judge Khanakorn shot himself in court. He survived however and was treated in hospital.
After he recovered, he was investigated by the Judicial Commission on disciplinary charges; he was transferred to another court and he was also the subject of investigations for allegedly committing criminal offences under the country's firearms legislation.
According to the Bangkok Post the judge’s suicide note, left by way of a farewell letter on Facebook, expressed his despair with the judicial system, and said that he could not bear losing a job he loved so much and also mentioned conviction in a criminal case.
‘I was later investigated and charged and became a suspect in a criminal case,’ he wrote. ‘I do believe that I will be dismissed from government service. Legal proceedings against me have also started. Being deprived of a job I love means a loss of one’s true self.’
After posting his farewell message, Judge Khanakorn shot himself in the heart. His wife and daughter were out at the time, and his wife found him critically wounded when she returned.
His actions have focused considerable attention, in Thailand and from without, on the system of justice in that country.
The International Commission of Jurists, one of many organisations to mark his death, said that the secretary-general of the Office of the Judiciary had given an interview on the subject of his death on 7 March 2020. In that interview, the official said that an initial investigation had found ‘no improper interference’ with Judge Khanakorn’s work. The official added that the disciplinary actions and criminal chargesCourt that the judge was facing at the time of his death ‘were based on his actions for carrying a gun into court and using the gun to attempt suicide.’
An editorial in the Bangkok Post says that the judiciary ‘owes answers’ and that his ‘sudden tragic death’ left many questions.
The paper said that the judge’s FB statement included 'messages' such as ‘Return justice to the people’ and ‘Return rulings to the judges’, and added to the controversy about the state of the Thai justice system.
The judge had also highlighted what he clearly viewed as a structural problem with the judicial system. He mentioned the constitution of 1997, widely seen as democratic. Under that constitution, however, ‘reviewing a ruling at the first-court level was not allowed. Why is that? Could it be the drafters knew such a review could pave the way of interference in a ruling by regional court presidents?’
‘The current system could not save a dedicated judge like Khanakorn,’ added the editorial. ‘His death will not only sadden the public but also trigger further curiosity and doubt about exactly what is going wrong in our system. Only those in the judiciary can provide answers. Continued silence is no longer an option.’