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Thailand: Security Forces Responsible for ‘Disappearances’

Government Should End Policy of ‘Disappearing’ Suspected Muslim Malay Separatists

(New York) - Thai security forces should stop using enforced disappearance as a tool against suspected Malay Muslim separatists in Thailand’s southern border provinces, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 69-page report, "It Was Like Suddenly My Son No Longer Existed: Enforced Disappearances in Thailand’s Southern Border Provinces," details 22 cases of unresolved “disappearances” in which the evidence strongly indicates that the Thai security forces were responsible. The report is based on interviews with dozens of witnesses, families of victims and Thai officials since February 2005.

Human Rights Watch found that most of those “disappeared” were suspected by the police or army of being separatist militants, supporting them or having information on their attacks.

“The Thai security forces are using ‘disappearances’ as a way to weaken the militants and instill fear in the Malay Muslim community,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These ‘disappearances’ appear to be a matter of policy, not simply the work of rogue elements in the security services.”

The actual number of “disappearances” in the southern border provinces is likely to be significantly underreported, since many families keep silent due to fears of reprisal and the lack of effective witness protection.

Many in Thailand’s ethnic Malay Muslim community have complained that the failure to solve “disappearances” has left them with the perception that justice for them is disappearing as well. Resentment against human rights abuses by the Thai authorities is among the factors fueling an increasingly brutal insurgency in which militants have carried out a string of killings and bombings of civilians over the past three years.

“Thailand’s government needs to make a clear and public statement of policy against ‘disappearances’ and take action against those responsible for this crime,” Adams said.

Most of the enforced disappearances documented in the report took place during the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a coup in September 2006. Enforced disappearances of ethnic Malay Muslims suspected of participating in the insurgency began a few days after Thaksin pressured police and soldiers to quickly arrest those responsible for the attack on the army camp in Narathiwat province on January 4, 2004.

Five days later, Sata Labo “disappeared.” His sister told Human Rights Watch that the police searched her house on January 8, 2004, looking for weapons stolen from Narathiwat army base. Nothing illegal was found during the search. Just before his “disappearance” on January 9, 2004, Sata called his sister from his mobile phone saying that he had been stopped by a group of police:

Around noon, I received a phone call from my brother. He told me that he was stopped by policemen. Those policemen searched his car and told him to go to the Narathiwat police station. That was the last time I heard from him. Sata never came back home.

In another case, the wife of Musta-sidin Ma-ming, a 27-year-old mobile-phone shop owner who “disappeared” in Narathiwat on February 11, 2004, told Human Rights Watch that witnesses saw a group of men wearing black shirts come to his shop in broad daylight and take Musta-sidin away with his assistant. In May 2004, she directly asked Thaksin to find out what had happened to her husband:

When the prime minister received my petition, he told me three times that “I am going to look into the case” … but those words have led to nothing.

The uncle of Wae-halem Kuwae-kama, a 40-year-old builder and a former deputy village chief who went missing on the evening of May 29, 2006, in Narathiwat’s Joh Airong district, told Human Rights Watch that Wae-halem was long-suspected by soldiers of playing an important role in the local network of separatists. His uncle recalled that Wae-halem was stopped at a checkpoint outside his village on the day he “disappeared:”

The month before he “disappeared,” soldiers from the unit stationed near Bukit Pracha Upatham School told him that he would be “taken down,” that is, shot dead, one day. They said Wae-halem’s name was on the blacklist … [on] May 29 … villagers saw that there was a pickup truck, a green Mitsubishi, parked not far from the tea shop. There were four or five men there. Those men told Wae-halem to stop [his motorcycle]. Then they took him inside their pickup truck and drove away. Since then, Wae-halem has not been seen again.

“While most ‘disappearances’ took place during Thaksin’s rule, many of the senior military and police officials who carried out this policy remain on active duty,” said Adams. “Thaksin acknowledged these abuses in 2005, yet nothing has been done to stop or punish those responsible.”

After the coup in September, the military-backed government of General Surayud Chulanont noted that problems in the southern border provinces were primarily rooted in the lack of justice. General Surayud vowed to introduce a more human rights-friendly and sophisticated approach than the heavy-handed one used by Thaksin.

But General Surayud’s government has done little to translate these promises into action. Government agencies – particularly the Royal Thai Police, the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation, the National Human Rights Commission and the newly reinstated Southern Border Provinces Administration Center – have also failed to carry out full and impartial investigations. The Royal Thai Police and the Royal Thai Army have taken no steps to prosecute personnel responsible for enforced disappearances and other violations of human rights.

Most of the 22 families Human Rights Watch interviewed in this report said they had received 100,000 baht (US$2,778) in financial assistance from the government. All of them, however, told Human Rights Watch that they did not believe that compensation was a substitute for serious investigations to determine the whereabouts of their fathers, husbands or sons, or for appropriate prosecutions of those responsible for the abuses.

“Offering money and apologies to victims’ families does not absolve the Thai authorities from their responsibility to prosecute those responsible for these crimes,” said Adams. “General Surayad vowed to make justice a priority, but his government still fails to hold officials accountable for these crimes.”

Human Rights Watch urged the Thai government to take all necessary steps to stop the practice of enforced disappearances, including by promptly signing and ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The Thai authorities should also make enforced disappearances a criminal offense.

Thailand’s government should conduct prompt, independent and impartial investigations into allegations of enforced disappearances. Whatever their rank, all officials implicated in enforced disappearances must be prosecuted, including those who knew or should have known about the pattern of abuses. As preventive measures, all persons detained by law enforcement and security forces must be held at recognized places of detention, and they must not be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The authorities must also make their whereabouts known to family and legal counsel.

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