Consistently counter-productive

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Extracts from a new report: Human Rights under Attack, by the Working Group on Justice for Peace, Thailand

One policy that has been consistently counter-productive is the government’s reliance on poorly trained, ill-disciplined para-military forces and civilian militias. Although they have a long-standing history in Thailand, since 2004 their strength in the South has been increased massively. There is a confusing multiplicity of groups – the paramilitary rangers, an interior ministry force known as the Volunteer Defence Corps, several loosely supervised village volunteer forces and an unknown number of smaller sectarian militias – added to the regular army, police and border patrol police. The largest armed force in the South is a civilian militia consisting of Village Defence Volunteers recruited under the Internal Security Operations Command and the Village Protection Force recruited under Queen Sirikit’s direction tasked with protecting Buddhist communities.

No clear structure of command exists among and between the different forces. Administered under the Internal Security Operations Command, this region differs in command structure from other regions in the country and a lack of accountability is evident. Testimonies of security personnel in court trials brought to light that all orders are being given on verbal basis and heads of smaller units are given discretion to run their operations independently. While ISOC recruits para-mlitary and civilian security agents and supplies them with training and weapons, these agents, particularly civilian defence volunteers, are recruited without proper screening and in many communities these men are known to be hitman or bandits attached to local elites. It is unclear whether any recruitment records are being stored to keep track of the number of security personnel hired and weapons supplied. Paramilitary groups are known to have sold their arms to villagers and requested new arms after having reported theft by insurgents.

These para-military and civilian militias have built their camps within places such as temple, school and health clinic grounds shutting these places for public use. Communities fear the presence of these armed groups and have continuously called for their withdrawal. Hundreds of complaints have been made by villagers that these groups are threatening, killing, raping and torturing with impunity. The groups have also been found to fight each other for control over resources and extra-legal and illegal business such as drug and human trafficking, illegal logging and night-life entertainment. Village raids by these groups, often conducted in the middle of the night, have resulted in trauma of the population and physical damage of property. Numerous times, villagers have complained that they were robbed of money, gas and mobile phones during raids.

[See further: Why does Thailand still need paramilitary groups? (The Irrawaddy)]

Sweeping Arrests and Arbitrary Detention
Since the government’s announcement of the new “Battle Plan for the Protection of Southern Lands” in June 2007, hundreds of villagers have been arrested during sweeping operations. The arrests mostly combine several hundred military officers clad in black and military uniforms, armed with heavy and light weapons laying siege on a community before dawn. They surround the whole village and enter residences to carry out searches without warrants. In many instances, the villagers are ordered to gather in one place and are forced to submit to an examination by an explosive material detecting device, known as DEMO. The accuracy and reliability of this device developed by the Central Forensic Institute has been questioned on numerous accounts. On the basis of these searches and results of the DEMO machine, persons are taken into custody without being informed about the grounds of arrest.

Arrests were generally conducted upon verbal orders by higher ranking officers rather than by issuance of arrest warrants. At this point, it is impossible to determine how many people or who has been arrested for how long. Detainees have included children under the age of 18, elderly and disabled people. In one habeas corpus case filed after the immediate re-arrest of three men who had just been released due to a lack of evidence, the provincial court declared the arrest illegal as there were no new grounds of arrest.

Initially arrested under Martial Law which allows detention for 7 days without charges, detention is afterward extended under the emergency decree. Under the emergency decree authorities can arrest and detain persons as preventive measures for 7 days initially which can be extended to a maximum period of 30 days. The authorities have to seek permission from the court to extend the period of detention every 7 days. In habeas corpus cases filed in court, it has been found that courts do not exercise any substantive review over detentions. The authorities were unable to produce any evidence to show the basis on which the persons were arrested as well as any records of arrest warrants along with prove of dates of arrest.

Initially, detainees are being held in secret detention centers which are makeshift army camps set up by para-military and civilian militant groups. Lawyers, human rights activists, and the National Human Rights Commission have requested access to these facilities on numerous occasions but have so far been denied. Directives issued by 4th Army Region Commander Lt. Gen Wiroj Buacharoon deny visits to detainees for the first three days after an arrest and forbid detention in prisons or police stations encouraging the use of secret detention centers breaching international and national standards of human rights and rule of law.

It has been reported in numerous cases that families and lawyers could not visit the detainees for several weeks and often were given misinformation on their whereabouts, amounting to involuntary disappearance. This system of problematic procedures and failure to follow judicial safeguards has opened up the way for systematic and widespread abuse of power. According to the Muslim Attorney Center based in Yala, 102 complaints regarding arrests under the emergency decree have been received since January this year, compared to the 89 complaints from January-December 2007.

[See further: Getting the fish back into the water]

Extrajudicial Killings
Several cases of extra-judicial killings took place in the southern three provinces over the last year. People were either shot drive-by style or during village raids. These killings were perpetrated by various security units, but most often village defence volunteers were alleged to be the perpetrators. None of the cases were properly investigated, nor were any of the perpetrators held accountable. In one instance, army spokesman Accra Thiproch justified the killings stating the authorities were defending themselves. But in all cases, the gunned down villagers were unarmed. Although these cases were reported in the media, and the National Human Rights Commission along with some National Legislative Assembly members expressed their concerns, generally disciplinary actions against the accused officers only came down to a transfer in locality.

Two cases of death in custody were reported last year. The first case involved a 47 year-old who was declared dead with gun injuries on 28 June 2007 at Yala Hospital. Authorities explained that he was shot in an attack by a group of unidentified persons while being transported from military to police custody. None of the army officers were injured in the attack. An autopsy conducted at Yala Central Hospital revealed that his death was caused by critical physical injuries. The other case involved a 25 year old who was arrested on 21 July 2007 in Yala’s Krong Pinang. Officers allegedly severely beat the man while in custody before being transferred to Ingkhayuthbhoriharn army camp. He died during medical treatment at Yala Hospital on 22 July. He was arrested with four others who explained to the National Human Rights Commission investigating the case that they had also been severely beaten.

[See for instance: No action against army killers of two young men; Death in custody and alleged torture of man in southern Thailand (AHRC)

Torture
Reports over the last few months reveal that torture is systematic and widespread carried out in military as well as paramilitary and special force camps. The Muslim Attorney’s Club has received 59 cases of torture during detention over the past eight months. Authorities most frequently accused of physical abuse are Special Force 11 and Military Ranger Regiment 41 in Yala as well as Ingkayutthabhoriharn military base in Pattani with most of the victims being residents of Bannang Sata district in Yala. Torture and physical abuse generally occur during the first three days of detention. Due to an order issued by the chief of the 4th army, families and lawyers are being denied access to the detainees during the first three days while being held at secret detention centers. In many instances, families had been misinformed on the whereabouts of the detainees having to go from camp to camp to find their relatives.

Frequent torture allegations first surfaced at Inkayutthbhoriharn army camp in Pattani in the middle of last year and human rights groups reported the allegations in the media. In July/August of 2007 the 4th Army Region reportedly considered punishing soldiers who have physically abused detainees. However, allegations of torture were not officially acknowledged by the military and no investigations were conducted. Since then, detainees are generally taken to the nearest para-military or special task force camp sometimes located right within the community for the first three days before being taken to army or police detention thereby effectively reducing the military’s accountability of violations. Villagers have reported that some detainees were tortured and ill-treated outside in broad daylight clearly visible to the public. But most of the time, torture takes place overnight carried out by plain-clothed men. Members of WGJP and the NHRC sub-committee on torture tried to access detention centers where torture allegations were reported but were denied access on several occasions.

Interviews of victims made it clear that torture forms part of interrogations used to obtain information or to force confessions. People reported having been beaten, held naked in refrigerated rooms, being forced to eat spoilt food, and having received electric shocks. Also, most victims suffer from punctured ear drums. Only in cases where detainees suffered exceptionally severe injuries did victims receive medical attention with security officers stationed at the hospital on 24-hour guard. Some were released after a few days and sought medical examinations at nearby hospitals but in many instances, doctors refused to examine the victims or issue medical reports out of fear. Most of the families and victims who reported the cases have subsequently been intimidated by authorities as the perpetrators are stationed in nearby makeshift camps.

[See for instance: You’ll die here or die outside]

Disappearances
Thirty cases of disappearances have been documented in Southern Thailand over the last four years. All of the cases were reported to local or national authorities. Although the government has acknowledged 23 cases of disappearances, the families [like those pictured above] only received 100,000 baht in compensation under a welfare assistance scheme to help victims of the violence in the South. The government failed to investigate the cases, clarify the whereabouts of the missing, and hold perpetrators accountable. By paying compensation to the families, the families were essentially told that the government considers the cases closed. A clause within their compensation contract denied the families’ right for further legal action. Out of those cases, 12 have been reported to the UN Working Group on Involuntary and Enforced Disappearances. The government has not communicated with WGEID on any of the cases.

Since June 2007, 4 new cases of disappearances have been reported. In all of the cases, witnesses saw the men being taken away by a group of armed authorities part of the local security structure. The cases were reported to local law enforcement agencies as well as the National Human Rights Commission. Two of the cases were brought to the attention of the Department of Special Investigation, a department under the Ministry of Justice tasked to investigate crime allegations of law enforcement officers. One case was accepted as a special case. However, since these cases were reported, the families have not been contacted by the authorities and no progress has been made in investigating the whereabouts of the disappeared. The families have been threatened by the perpetrators as a result of their actions and some are too afraid to take any further action.

[See further: Where did they go? (AHRC Emergency Decree campaign page)]

Child Soldiers
Two reports where the arming of children was encouraged by state officers had surfaced in the media. In both cases, human rights groups condemned the promotion of child soldiers reminding the government to adhere to its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, the government has ignored these calls and failed to address the issue.

A teenage boy, Abasa Mae-ae, was presented with a certificate by Yala governor Theera Monthrasak in recognition of his bravery when he returned fire upon a group, alleged to be insurgents, who attacked him, his father and his nephew on the way to their rubber plantation. All attackers were killed as well as Abasa’s father who was assistant village head of Ban Dusong Tawa in Raman district. The teenager has been made a Raman district defence volunteer, an armed unit meant to defend villagers against militant attacks.

Ruam Thai Team,” formed by residents in Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and some districts in Songkhla, has reportedly expanded its defence force training to include 300 children with some as young as 8-10 years old. The group is headed by Pol Col Pithak Iedkaew, a former investigation chief of Yala police station and now superintendent of the Krasae Sin district police in Songkhla. The group began to provide weapons and training for residents in the South in 2005 in order to defend themselves against the insurgents. This group was involved in an attack in May 2007 in Kolomudo village which left five youths dead. In an interview with the Associated Press, leader Phitak stated that 6,200 members have been recruited who “only shoot insurgents who deserve to be killed.” Criticism has even come from inside the army that such groups have inflamed conflicts between Muslims and Buddhists exacerbating a cycle of revenge.

Threats to Human Rights Defenders
October and November of 2007 saw an alarming increase of attacks on local human rights defenders in the South. Three human rights defenders were shot dead. These individuals had been in regular contact with human rights groups reporting violations in the area and assisting victims of abuse. In each case, the shooting took place in the victim’s community.
Numerous human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers investigating human rights violations and incidences of violence have faced various attempts of intimidation and threats. HRD have been stopped by military personnel and barred from entering certain districts or villages. In some cases, they were only allowed access to villages if they agreed to be escorted by military personnel. Some of the human rights defenders had to relocate or seize their work. These are apparent efforts by the military to intimidate human rights defenders from investigating incidences of human rights violations and to prevent them from giving voice to southern Muslim’s grievances.

Members of the Working Group on Justice for Peace have on numerous occasions been barred from entering villages without para-military escort and been threatened by local as well as national government and security officers. Two members from Yala have been threatened by army generals with one member having been told that he would become the next Somchai Neelapaichit if he did not stop speaking about torture. The other member, who has been investigating and documenting violations, received a message that army generals wanted to cut off his head. Angkhana Neelapaichit has been approached on numerous occasions by high ranking officials to stop advocating for human rights and all members have been accused of helping the insurgents.

[See further: Husband of human rights defender shot dead in south]

Read the full report

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