For Immediate Release
Bangkok — Actions by anti-government protesters who first blockaded and later forcibly entered and searched a major hospital in central Bangkok last month were a gross violation of humanitarian principles. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) endorses an independent investigation into the incident to ensure that all parties to the ongoing turmoil in Thailand understand the importance of maintaining neutrality.
"Our ethical responsibility as doctors requires that we first ensure our patients' personal security and freedom from harm," says Adam Richards, a physician and PHR board member who investigated recent events at King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital in Bangkok. "Society shares in our responsibility, and together we must adamantly resist and vehemently speak out when political events threaten to transform a hospital from a center of healing into a battlefield."
A core humanitarian principle is that medical personnel be granted unimpeded access to people who require their help, and that they be afforded complete independence to render aid impartially and without regard to political affiliation or other kind of status.
"Despite threats to their personal security, hospital staff and administrators upheld their ethical duties to their patients by evacuating them to safety and by providing impartial care to all," says Richard Sollom, PHR's director of research and investigations, who was also on the PHR team.
At the invitation of staff at Chulalongkorn Hospital, Richards and Sollom interviewed senior hospital administrators, physicians, nurses and house staff in Bangkok over several days in early May. Their independent accounts all detailed the occurrence of many humanitarian violations in or around the hospital during April.
Among the incidents related to the PHR team by hospital personnel:
- In early April, protesters erected barriers of tires and bamboo poles along a road separating the hospital grounds from their encampment in adjacent Lumpini Park, leaving only a single lane open for patients, visitors and medical personnel.
- Over the next several weeks, protesters armed with knives and sharpened bamboo staves began stopping and searching vehicles entering the hospital — including ambulances transporting acutely ill patients. The protesters were said to be checking for weapons possibly hidden by soldiers in such vehicles.
- On April 28, hospital administrators decided to evacuate all hospital buildings within 200 meters of propane tanks positioned by the protesters near a post supporting the elevated railway. Their assumption was that anyone near the tanks might be injured if the protesters decided to try to explode a section of the railway.
- The next day, more than 100 protesters, some armed with staves, demanded to be admitted to the hospital buildings to search for Thai security forces whom they suspected of taking up positions overlooking the protesters' encampment. No such forces were found.
- On at least one occasion, a protester claiming to be a physician demanded that the house staff change the medical record of a patient to make it appear that the injury was the result of a fall rather than of a blow to the face. Feeling intimidated, the house staff acquiesced to this change.
All these incidents, individually and collectively, intimidated physicians, nurses and other hospital staff, as well as patients and their families. As a result, hospital administrators evacuated all 1,200 patients over several days.
The PHR team was unable to interview police officials or leaders of the anti-government movement, known as "red shirts." But red shirt leaders quickly apologized for the invasion of the hospital grounds and for interfering with medical operations. Said one: "It is not our policy to obstruct hospital operations."
PHR strongly urges all stakeholders in the current political crisis in Thailand to ensure that all political entities and institutions understand the importance of maintaining the neutrality of medical care and safeguard unhindered access to medical facilities for patients and staff.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.