An article in the Asia Times this week linked a secret U.S. facility in eastern Thailand with the torture of people in the country’s south. According to Shawn W. Crispin, “Rights advocates monitoring southern Thailand’s conflict note a striking similarity between the torture techniques U.S. agents are known to have used against terror suspects … with those now in practice by Thai security forces against suspected Thai Muslim militants.”
That soldiers, paramilitaries and police in the south routinely torture their detainees is beyond doubt. Journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders have documented hundreds of cases over a number of years, although concerns for the safety of the victims, their families and persons recording their stories mean that many cannot be publicized. As the abused persons also hold no hopes of redress through the courts, they can expect no more than a small payoff in acknowledgment of wrongdoing with which, it is understood, their silence also is bought.
But have rights advocates really noted a “striking similarity” between these cases and what has gone on in Guantanamo? Isn’t it more relevant to talk about the striking similarity between the abuses in the south and what goes on in police stations all around the country? Or how about what goes on in the Philippines, Sri Lanka or Cambodia?
Perhaps the biggest persistent misunderstanding concerning torture in Asia is that it is typical to cases of national security, and that the perpetrators genuinely use it to extract information from their victims.
From years of intensive work, the Asian Human Rights Commission has found that torture across the region is used predominantly in mundane criminal cases. Accused persons are tortured over trifles, such as the theft of some bananas or a traffic violation. They may be tortured to admit to additional charges on top of that for which they have already been detained. They may be innocent of any offence, and the torturers may know it too: no matter.
The purpose of torture in Asia is not for the most part to extract information. It is to get a confession, coerce someone into doing something, or just to show who’s boss.
Most torture victims in Asia are not suspected terrorists. They are not living in areas of civil conflict. Rather, they are poor and easily isolated. They may have criminal records. They are accused of day-to-day infringements: the theft of a car, the sale of some drugs. And above all, they are living in countries in which the police and military forces are powerful, and where the courts are weak.
Torture in Asia occurs because policing is corrupted and politicized. It occurs because there are no laws to prohibit it or means to investigate it, because senior officers are not held responsible for the wrongdoing of their subordinates, and because there are no serious attempts to replace outdated modes of investigation with more sophisticated methods.
This is true of Thailand. Although the country recently joined the U.N. Convention against Torture it has indicated that it won’t amend national law to comply with the treaty’s standards. High-ranking officers shield those underneath from prosecution, and anyhow, there are no means to investigate police other than through the police themselves. Efforts to introduce more forensic science into inquiries have met with hostility and resistance.
Police commit torture all over the country. In many cases it is extremely brutal. Favored techniques include the electrocuting, burning and squeezing of genitalia. Other victims are suffocated and hanged; some do not survive. Of those who do, few lodge formal complaints for the same reason as those in the south: they have no hope of redress and to do so would only further jeopardize their safety.
Because human rights groups, strategic analysts and television crews have gone to look for torture in southern Thailand, they have found it. Because of concerns about the consequences of the violence there on the country as a whole, and its relevance to global strategic affairs, it is a subject of interest.
The commonplace abuse of detainees in other provinces does not attract such interest. It is undocumented not because it is not occurring but because there are no serious and sustained efforts to uncover and report on it.
Unlike in Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani, nobody closely monitors the work of police and paramilitaries in Ayutthaya, Surin or Ratchaburi. In those places, torturers have their way far from the global debate on Abu Ghraib or Afghanistan, far from the scrutiny of international organizations, and far even from the concerns of the domestic media.
The problems of torture in Thailand, as in most of Asia, are both deep and widespread. They are a part of the fabric of policing and security forces alike. They are rooted in the recent histories of national agencies as well as in notions of social control that go back centuries.
While the irresponsible and flagrant breaches of international law by the United States and some of its allies have greatly damaged the absolute prohibition of torture, it is wrong to suggest that they have also somehow suddenly lured countries in Asia into bad practices that long preceded talk about a global war on terror, and will probably continue long after it.
Superficial accounts of abuse lend themselves to no more than superficial remedies. They will not do. The struggle to end torture in Asia is nothing less than a struggle to make state officers answerable to the law, to make parliaments answerable to the public, and to make judges independent and their judgments enforceable. It is nothing less than a struggle for the rule of law over the rule of lords.
Thanks to Bangkok Pundit for drawing attention to the Asia Times article.
See further: Rule of law versus rule of lords in Thailand (article 2)
Interrogating injustice (Supara Janchitfah)