(New York) - The Thai military should immediately end the intimidation of human rights defenders in the southern border provinces, Human Rights Watch said today. Growing reports of abuses and illegal tactics by the security forces seriously undermine the credibility of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has vowed to bring justice to the conflict-ridden region.
Early in the morning of February 8, 2009, about 20 soldiers and police raided the office of the Working Group for Peace and Justice (WGPJ) in Pattani province and intimidated personnel. WGPJ is a nongovernmental organization that reports on human rights abuses in the southern border provinces, including arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, and torture.
Since the outbreak of violence in Thailand's southern border provinces in January 2004, a number of human rights defenders have been arrested, tortured, "disappeared," and murdered, allegedly by the security forces. None of these cases have been successfully investigated to bring the perpetrators to justice.
"Thai security forces are using violence and intimidation to stop human rights defenders from exposing abuses," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "To fulfill its own commitment, the government should protect human rights defenders, investigate attacks against them, and punish the offenders."
The February 8 raid was carried out under the command of Lt. Col. Pravej Sudhiprapha from Pattani Taskforce 23. Soldiers and police arrived in three pickup trucks and searched the group's office. According to two WGJP volunteers who were at the office that morning, Pravej stated that the search was authorized under martial law based on intelligence reports that separatist militants had been seen in the area. Security forces told the volunteers to show their ID cards and interrogated them about their activities, particularly how they documented abuses and how they contacted victims.
Security forces ordered the volunteers to provide the login passwords of the group's computers. After taking photos of documents and materials found in the office, the officers then spent a long time inspecting data inside the computers, which contained details about abuse victims, witnesses, and other sensitive information.
The recent raid undercuts Prime Minister Abhisit's policy statement on December 30, 2008, that justice and human rights will be integral to resolution of the conflict in the southern border provinces. Continuing abuses by government forces in the south also are being used by insurgents to fuel their movement.
The group's chairperson, Angkhana Neelapaijit, told Human Rights Watch she believed the military might be targeting her group because it has played a central role in reporting on human rights cases in Thailand's southern border provinces to the United Nations and international human rights organizations. In March 2004, her husband, the well-known Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, was abducted and murdered after he exposed a number of cases of torture committed by police in the southern border provinces.
"This [recent] incident does not just intimidate our staff and volunteers," Angkhana said. "Many victims and witnesses are now worried that they will soon be identified, tracked down, and pressured by the military to keep their mouth shut."
According to a Bangkok Post article, titled "ISOC warns of militant plots" (February 7, 2009: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/local/11186/isoc-warns-of-militant-plots), the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Region 4, which supervises counterinsurgency operations in the southern border provinces, warned at an interagency meeting on February 6 that, "militants may take the opportunity to disguise themselves as rights activists in order to incite hatred against officials or distort information to create misunderstanding about security operations among locals." Human Rights Watch said such reports promote the widespread perception among members of the security forces that human rights defenders are their enemies.
"Hostility toward human rights defenders is being promoted through misinformation and unproven allegations circulated by the military's propaganda machines," said Pearson. "But the government and the military should understand that human rights defenders help fill in the gaps in counterinsurgency and peacebuilding efforts."
Although the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC) was established in 2006 to help investigate and take action against complaints about corrupt, abusive, or inept government officials, its redress mechanisms for victims are unable to function independently because of interference from the army. At the same time, the military's internal investigation mechanisms are known to be used to cover up and distract public attention from abuses.
Human Rights Watch said that special laws creating an environment conducive to human rights violations without fear of punishment should be revoked. By using extensive powers of the Decree on Government Administration in Emergency Situations (Emergency Decree), security forces in the southern border provinces are not subject to civil, criminal, or disciplinary liabilities arising from their actions.
The separatist Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani (Patani Freedom Fighters) in the loose network of Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinas (National Revolution Front-Coordinate or BRN-Coordinate) has used state-sponsored abuses and heavy-handed tactics to justify their campaign of violence and terror. In recent weeks, militants have carried out beheadings, shootings, and bomb attacks across the southern border provinces as reprisals for Thai security forces' alleged extrajudicial killings of community and religious leaders. The number of attacks by militants and security forces is on the rise again.
"Relying on repressive measures and restrictions on fundamental human rights, Thai authorities have created a fertile ground for the insurgency to expand," said Pearson. "Prime Minister Abhisit should act quickly to overhaul a counterinsurgency strategy that encourages abuses, impose effective civilian control over the army, and provide effective redress for victims of abuses."