PATTANI– A bomb suspect held for two weeks without charge in Thailand’s insurgency-battered south says an army dragnet following the coup is calcifying hostility towards the kingdom – and undercutting a fresh bid for peace.
The decade-long conflict has claimed more than 6,100 lives across Thailand’s lush, forested Muslim-majority southern provinces, where shadowy rebels are fighting for a level of autonomy from the Thai state.
Most of the victims are civilians caught up in the near-daily bombings, shootings – and occasional beheadings – that define a war largely ignored by Thais and forgotten by the wider world. From a remote hamlet cocooned by fruit trees, 23-year-old Ri says he was arrested on suspicion of planting one of a series of bombs that rocked the provincial capital Pattani.
“They took me to an (army) rangers’ base. I told them I was innocent, but they still held me. I don’t know why,” the student, whose identity has been changed by AFP, said of his arrest in July.
The blasts, which occurred two days after the May 22 coup, killed several people and wounded scores more – appearing timed to remind the junta that new political realities in Bangkok had little bearing on the battle for the deep south. Thailand colonised the area more than a century ago and has tried to corral the local Muslim population into accepting its rule through assimilation schemes, cash inducements and hard military power.
But they have comprehensively failed to staunch the insurgency, which has ground on since 2004. In that time security forces have been accused of widespread human rights abuses – including extra-judicial killings.
‘STOP ARRESTING US’
The three southern provinces bordering Malaysia are also smothered by emergency powers allowing suspects to be held without charge for more than five weeks.
It took two days for Ri’s father and brother to trace him, with the detainee denied phone calls. “They kept asking me ‘Did you do it? Where were you when the bombs went off?'” the student said.
Despite protesting his innocence, Ri was held for a further 10 days under an emergency decree before being released. His family say no evidence was brought against him, neither was an apology or explanation for his detention offered. The ordeal has left Ri scared and angry but also dismissive of a loudly trumpeted effort by the junta to forge peace.
“Prayut says he wants peace,” he said referring to new Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha – who is also the outgoing army chief. “But first they have to stop arresting us.”
PEACE UNDER THE GUN?
An already parlous rights situation has deteriorated sharply following the military takeover, according to campaigners, with scores of suspects swept into arbitrary detention for days or weeks amid the power plays in the Thai capital. Despite tightening security the junta insists it is focused on rebooting stalled peace talks.
Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) said 78 people were arrested in the deep south between July 7 and August 28. The figures omit the initial six weeks after the coup and do not reveal how many of those detained were subsequently released or charged.
Three people died in raids – including a 14-year-old boy mistakenly shot on August 20 by a paramilitary soldier, who is now facing charges after planting a handgun on the dead teen to cover up the killing. “Our security measures have been more aggressive in hunting for suspects,” ISOC spokesman Colonel Pramote Promin told AFP.
The result has been a further erosion of trust in the justice system and the sincerity of the Thai side to address local grievances, according to Anchana Heemmina, of advocacy group Duay Jai. “No-one believes in Prayut and his peace talks… they will be held under the gun,” she said. “The recent experience of villagers is the opposite of peace, they have been harassed and arrested.”
While exact numbers of the detained are hard to gather across remote communities stalked by fear, Anchana says false arrests are a “story that is told many times”, hardening mistrust and acting as a recruiting tool for the rebels.
REBELS READY TO TALK?
Several rounds of peace discussions last year floundered and questions remain over the ability of the rebel interlocutors to tug the leash of increasingly ruthless foot soldiers. In his weekly televised speech Friday, Prayut said Kuala Lumpur had agreed to continue facilitating peace talks.
But a source close to the discussions told AFP that insurgent leaders are yet to agree to return to the table – annoyed that Thai negotiators failed to respond to a set of demands made last year. Those included a broad amnesty and discussions on a form of autonomy for the region.
Even if the insurgents agree to talk, sceptics say the Thai army’s reflex is to control rather than compromise. The military is already backing away from the “hearts and minds” policies of the former civilian administration, according to rights activist Pornpen Khongkachonkiet of the Cross Cultural Foundation.
“The military is more important than before and there are fewer checks and balances to their power,” adds Pornpen, who is facing a defamation charge linked to her work in the Thai south. “That makes the human rights more vulnerable.”