CHIANG RAI -The Lahu people, mostly living in districts bordering Myanmar in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces, say they have been living in a climate of fear since the Thaksin Shinawatra administration announced the War on Drug policy in 2003.
Thai authorities believe that the border districts are part of a drug trafficking route from Wa State in Myanmar and that some hill tribe people are involved.
The War on Drugs intensified the unfair treatment of the Lahu based on stereotypical assumptions made by state authorities that hill tribes people are involved in crimes such as drug trafficking, deforestation and land encroachment.
During this period, state officials, mostly soldiers and rangers, arbitrarily arrested individuals, claiming they may have been involved in drug trafficking or possession of illegal goods. Upon arrest, the villagers were usually beaten and blindfolded. Arriving at the army camp, they would be interrogated and beaten again. They were detained in a hole in the ground, about 2-3 metres wide and 4 metre deep. Each hole contained about 10 detainees, but sometimes the number may reach 40.
Most of the detainees were kept in the hole for seven days continuously before they were temporarily brought up for interrogation and torture, including electric shocks. They were fed twice a day. The average detention period was two to three months, though a few were detained for only 45 days.
“The condition in the hole is so terrible. We eat, sleep, piss and shit in the same hole,” said Sila Jahae, President of Lahu Association
Stories of the hole and torture are widely known among Lahu villagers. In many cases, at the time of capture, shooting and beating are done in public, in front of other Lahu. Most of the victims and victims’ families do not dare to report the case to the police as they are afraid that they themselves will be disappeared.
“It’s a custom of state officials to capture a villager and beat them in front of other villagers,” the President of Lahu Association told Prachatai.
Sila is a vocal Lahu activist who has fought for justice for the Lahu and other hill tribes in Thailand. He himself was detained in a hole in a ranger camp twice. First time, when he bumped into a group of rangers on his way back home from police station. Second time, the soldiers came to detain him while he was in a meeting with Lahu Association members. He was luckier than other Lahu. He was released unharmed after his wife complained to a local MP.
After the War on Drugs was concluded at the end of 2003, the practice of torture, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances has continued until today. State officials may arrive at the door, claiming to search for illegal goods and order a search without a court warrant, or a fake warrant, taking valuables and vehicles from the house and detaining the person at an unknown, unofficial place.
Today the practice has created a new problem when some local Lahu who are running for a local political office accuse their rivals of involvement in drug trafficking or possessing illegal goods. Some Lahu villagers have decided to flee into the forest or to Myanmar. Some have joined militant groups as they want to escape the atrocities committed by the Thai state, according to Sila.
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By Thaweeporn Kunmetha