Thailand’s new government has lifted the state of emergency in some parts the country’s troubled south, where a Muslim insurgency has claimed thousands of lives over the past two decades. Critics said the emergency measures had led to rampant human rights abuses.
In 2005, a year after an ongoing wave of rebel violence erupted in the largely Buddhist country’s three southernmost regions, the government issued an emergency proclamation. The majority of the population in those regions are Muslims of Malay ethnicity.
The security forces can hold suspects for up to 30 days without charging them, and the personnel are immune from punishment for any measures taken in the line of duty, per the decree. It also gives the government wide authority to stifle media coverage.
It’s not just the northern provinces that are under martial law; the southern provinces also have the Internal Security Act, which gives the security forces more leeway.
Over the years, Thailand has lifted the emergency decree in ten separate municipalities. On Monday, government spokesperson Rudklao Intawong Suwankiri said that the government had passed a resolution to lift the emergency declaration in three more districts, one in each province.
She explained that the administration took the decision because attacks in such regions have decreased significantly in recent years.
In place of the emergency decree, “the data showed that the violence has… reduced to a level where it is safe to use the [Internal Security Act],” Rudklao added.
Another area where she reported an increase in attacks has had the decree reinstated.
According to the independent research group Deep South Watch, there have been around 7,300 deaths and 13,600 injuries as a result of the conflict since 2004. From a high of 1,850 in 2012, the number of violent occurrences across the provinces has consistently declined to 158 in 2017.
If attacks continue to decrease, Deputy Prime Minister Somsak Thepsutin, who heads an advisory group on the emergency law, would likely propose relaxing the decree in several more districts in 2019, according to Rudklao.
“He has a quite hopeful feeling that things would improve to the point that at least an additional 10 districts would be able to lift,” she said. “But in the end, we need to examine the numbers.”
Many residents and advocacy groups feel the decree has been counterproductive because it has given law enforcement and military personnel impunity for decades of abuse.
This means that you would have no recourse in the event of detainee abuse under this statute. According to Amnesty International Thailand researcher Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong, “that aligns with the consistent reports of torture and ill treatment in detention in the southern border provinces.”
Many claims have been made that the captives were tortured, emotionally and physically. He told VOA that this has been a source of great suffering for locals for the past 19 years.
U.S. State Department report on human rights status in Thailand from 2022: “Official impunity… continued to be a problem, especially in the southernmost provinces.”
According to Chanatip, the government’s decision to end the ban in three municipalities is a “good start.”
“But there is much more that they have to do,” he emphasised. The declaration of martial law permits an additional week of incarceration. The Internal Security Act also provides the security forces with extensive authority in the area. Therefore, the government must do much more to promote peace and human rights in the region.
Human rights groups like Amnesty International have pushed for Thailand to abandon the military code in the south and replace it with civilian law.
It’s not a consensus. Some Buddhists in southern Thailand, according to Buddhists for Peace, an organisation that promotes interfaith communication.
“The terrorists always attack the Thai Buddhists in southern Thailand because they think they are part of the Thai government,” Lamai Manakarn, a coordinator for the group who resides in the south, claimed.
Buddhists in Thailand feel more secure due to the emergency law. She went on to say that if the government wanted to cancel it, it should do so in places where there isn’t an immediate threat.
The government has been negotiating with the major insurgent organisation, Barisan Revolusi Nasional, off and on for years, but so far without success.
According to International Crisis Group senior analyst Matthew Wheeler, the recent removal of emergency rule in a few districts is unlikely to move the Malaysia-brokered negotiations further.
Lifting the decree regionally could have sent a message of new thinking and increased concern for the preservation of human rights, but such a move would have had little practical effect. He stated in an email, “The latest easing of the decree is not likely to have much of an impact on BRN because the emergency decree was lifted years ago in 10 districts in the three southernmost provinces.”
A policy statement the new administration presented to the National Assembly last month outlining its priorities made only one nebulous reference to seeking “long-lasting security and peace” for the border provinces, according to Wheeler, who argues that the government has shown no sign of changing course in its approach to the insurgency.
After BRN halted negotiations unilaterally in May, right before national elections, the government’s negotiating team has not met with BRN since.