While the Thai media and urban middle class have focused on the ongoing political deadlock in Bangkok in recent months, the violence in southern Thailand has continued unabated. There are huge question marks over the methods used by the Thai government in dealing with the situation in that region. On the second anniversary of a raid by insurgents on an army base, that marked an upsurge in violence, people in the far south of Thailand are caught between daily drive-by shootings and bombings, by suspected members of Muslim armed groups, and harsh or inadequate counter-measures by the security forces.
Since January 2004 more than 1,000 people have been killed, including both civilians and members of the security forces. Attacks by armed groups have continued, on an almost daily basis, as the authorities have struggled to address the violence by deploying significantly increased numbers of security forces in these provinces and expanding their powers by enacting new security legislation. The conflict has had an extremely adverse impact on locals, affecting almost all areas of their lives, as their ability to travel, trade and work (in safety) has been greatly restricted.
Failure to protect human rights
While the Thai government has a duty to protect the safety of people in the South, and to bring to justice perpetrators of human rights abuses, any action taken by the government in carrying out this duty must be in full conformity with international human rights law and standards. In this regard Amnesty International has major concerns about the failure of the Thai criminal justice system to protect basic human rights of people in the far South.
In the Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat Provinces, there are concerns about the authorities’ failure to conduct proper investigations into attacks on both Buddhist and Muslim civilians. Scores of villagers of both faiths have reported that there has been no investigation conducted whatsoever, while some have said that a mere cursory investigation took place.
They have expressed their frustration at the lack of protection in villages identified by the government as those areas with the highest level of violence. This in spite of the presence of high numbers of security forces in these villages and particularly in ‘red zones’. This failure, on the part of the authorities to properly investigate the killings of Buddhist and Muslim civilians in the three provinces, has contributed to the overall climate of fear there.
Disappearances and death threats
An unknown number of people have also ‘disappeared’ since the upsurge in violence, beginning early 2004. Official and semi-official bodies have tried to establish mechanisms whereby complaints could be received from relatives of the ‘disappeared’, or from families of people who may have fled from their homes.
However, attempts to gather information on ‘disappearances’ have been greatly hampered by attacks and anonymous death threats against those, living in the South, who have attempted to conduct investigations and document individual cases. Human rights defenders working on the issue told AmnestyInternational that it was extremely difficult to estimate how many have ‘disappeared’ because of threats they themselves have received and because villagers are often too frightened to come forward with information.
Since early 2001, in Thailand, 19 human rights defenders have been assassinated, one ‘disappeared’ and several have survived assassination attempts.
Others have received repeated anonymous death threats or have been placed under surveillance. This pattern of abuse is also true in southern Thailand where the atmosphere is particularly tense and volatile. Some human rights defenders were threatened on the phone, through the internet and through personal mail. One human rights defender reported that an anonymous caller had telephoned in early 2005 and told him, ‘Be careful or you may die’. Several human rights defenders can no longer visit villages or go out at night. Some stopped their investigations completely, being afraid of the consequences. Nevertheless they have continued to express concern about rural people who are still under threat.
Since the 2004 upsurge in political violence the authorities have arrested an unknown number of those suspected of involvement in, or support for, armed political groups. They have been various instances of suspects being denied legal counsel in the initial stages of detention.
Moreover, legal sources and community leaders have said that Malay Muslim suspects in detention are never provided with a Malay – Thai interpreter and that they often have difficulties in understanding questions during interrogation. Detainees were also required to sign a document – only available in the Thai language stating that they have read and understood it. Malay Muslim defendants and witnesses in trial hearings are also not provided with interpretation services. There are also reports naming those – arrested under the Emergency Decree – who have been denied legal counsel for several days and also access to their families.
Shackled and tortured
Some detainees, held in relation to the violence, have been kept continuously for prolonged periods in heavy metal shackles weighing 4½ kilograms. Amnesty International was told that a group of six students, arrested in the aftermath of the 4 January 2004 army base raid, were also being held in such shackles in the Yala Provincial Prison. Shackling of death row prisoners is routine in Thailand, in Bangkwang Maximum Security Prison. Amnesty International has also reported on other cases of continual shackling of people not under sentence of death. Continuous shackling in heavy metal chains constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
During its 2005 visit to southern Thailand, Amnesty International interviewed a Malay Muslim who recounted how he had been tortured by police in 2002. The man, who was related by marriage to a prominent Pulo leader, was arrested in October 2002 and charged with the murder of a village headman. The police took him initially to Panare District Police Station, Pattani Province for interrogation. During that time, he said, they poured hot water on him and, when he did not answer questions to their satisfaction, they beat him.
They threw a large wooden chair at him, which was also used to beat him. He was interrogated for three days and nights. He was asked if he had been ‘feeding the insurgents’. His family was only permitted to see him after four days. He was eventually allowed access to legal counsel and was acquitted a few months later.
In August 2005 the authorities established a ‘blacklist’ or ‘list of suspects’ who were thought to be supporters of, or sympathetic to, the insurgents. Scores of young Muslim men were told by village and district officials that their names appeared on the list and were strongly urged to report to the provincial government. Media reports stated that they had ‘surrendered’ to the authorities and some were required to attend a residential camp at an army base for a week to 10 days.
In September and October 2005 Amnesty International gathered first hand information about the ‘blacklist’.
It is not known how the authorities gathered names for the ‘blacklist’ or what the basis was for determining who appeared on the list. Those who turned themselves in were not believed to have been charged with any offence. Community leaders have said that young devout Muslim men, including religious teachers and those who have graduated from universities in Muslim countries, appear to be most at risk of appearing on a ‘blacklist’. To Amnesty International’s knowledge, there is no judicial mechanism for appeals to be made to challenge an inclusion in the ‘blacklist’.
Prompt and impartial investigation needed
While we recognize the challenges facing the Thai authorities, in responding to the crisis in the far South, there are questions marks about the methods used by the government in dealing with the violence.These include arbitrary arrest and detention procedures, torture and ill-treatment of those arrested in relation to the violence, failure to investigate killings and possible ‘disappearances’; and impunity of the security forces under the provisions of the 2005 Emergency Decree.In order to improve the human rights situation in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat Provinces, the Thai
Government must initiate prompt, impartial, independent, and effective investigations into all allegations of human rights violations. These violations include torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, ‘disappearances’ and excessive use of lethal force. The investigations must be conducted with a view to prosecuting suspected perpetrators and ensuring full reparations for survivors and families of victims.
The Thai government must also ensure that all people in detention have immediate access to legal counsel, adequate medical care and to their families. It must end the torture or ill-treatment of prisoners or others who are deprived of their liberty. It must also make certain that continuous shackling of prisoners is not used in prisons or other detention centres and that ‘blacklists’ are not used to detain people, in military camps, without charge. The process of being ‘blacklisted’ stigmatizes people and denies them the right to be presumed innocent.
The failure of the Thai authorities to adopt a consistent approach to justice in the South will only lead to more violence in the future.