Over 300 men from the three southernmost provinces have been held in army camps in Ranong, Suratthani, and Chumpon undergoing occupational training since August 2007. At least 6 of those detained were juveniles. The military publicized these training camps as capacity building and attitude adjustment programs and stressed that the detainees had enrolled voluntarily. However, the detainees had submitted written requests to the camp commanders to be permitted to leave on 3 October 2007 which was denied. On 5 October 2007, 80 participants of the occupational training filed habeas corpus petitions, a first in Thailand, through their families before the Provincial Criminal Courts alleging that they were forced to give their consent for joining the training.
The courts accepted the cases and the hearings brought to light that the men were indeed forced - they were presented with the choice of either undergoing the four-month occupational training or being charged with severe national security offences without the option of bail. When asked by the judges whether they wanted to return home, all detainees answered in the affirmative.
The hearings also revealed an order of the 4th Army Region dated 22 July 2007, formulated under Martial Law powers, which prohibits 384 individuals, including those undergoing the four-month occupational training, from entering or residing in the provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla for six months. The rationale given by the military in the order is that all persons named in the list are suspected to be either supporters or sympathizers of the insurgency. Would they remain in the three southern provinces they would be vulnerable to being brainwashed by the insurgents into taking active part in the insurgency. However, if they were prohibited from living in the south and forced to live in other parts of Thailand, they would learn how to integrate peacefully within Thai society.
The military claimed that the training and army order was made in consultation with the National Human Rights Commission. One of the witnesses at the court hearings was a member of a sub-committee of the NHRC. But his testimony made evident that he was acting in his personal capacity when helping the army set up the training. That same sub-commissioner did not fail to threaten an observer at the trial as well. The NHRC protested the military claims in a letter sent to the court stating that the NHRC is by no means an initiator, supporter or operator of this program and has never assigned any commissioner or sub-commissioner to do so. Neither has it endorsed or supported the issuing of the army order.
The military claimed the training program was set up in order to ensure the 22 July prohibition was implemented, however documents show the occupational training was part of a strategy developed before the announcement. A proposal to set up a Special Project Working Group to develop these training programs had already been submitted by ISOC members to the 4th Army Commander and ISCO Region 4 Commander in June 2007. A draft Internal Security Act, which would have given the ISOC Director discretion to offer ‘offenders' the choice of attending training camps for up to 6 months instead of being charged with an offence, was submitted to the Council of State in June 2007. Due to heavy criticism by human rights advocates, the Internal Security Act was withdrawn for revision.
The provincial courts in Suratthani, Chumpon, and Ranong announced their verdict on 30 October. The courts declared that the occupational training is a good response to the situation in the South and not illegal detention. As it is in line with martial law regulations and the detainees are neither threatened nor mistreated, the occupational training can have the desired outcome. However, the courts decided it can only achieve its objective if it is truly voluntary. According to article 32 (5) of the constitution, people's rights to liberty must be upheld and the detainees are therefore free to go if they wish to do so. However, in line with the 22 July army order, the trainees would not be allowed to return to their homes and families in the three southern provinces, a grave violation of their constitutional rights and international laws.
The military commanders present at the court proceeded to once again present the detainees with a ‘choice' - they could either sign up the same day to finish the training and return home on 24 November 2007 despite the prohibition or they could leave immediately but would not be able to return home until the six months had passed. The army refused to guarantee in writing that they would let the defendants return home at the end of the training if they remained at the camps. The lawyers of the families negotiated with the army commanders to give the defendants three days to decide on what to do.
The defendants from Suratthani and Ranong decided to leave the camp immediately and stay at a mosque whereas the men in Chumpon decided to return to the camp for the three days until they had coordinated with their families and lawyers and made a decision on how to proceed.
So far, there has been no explanation or criteria provided as to how the names attached to the order have been compiled. The sweeping arrests were conducted randomly without any arrest warrants and army commanders present in the court declared that the military was lacking clear evidence to charge those undergoing the training meaning that according to law, they were innocent. These facts raise serious questions about this blacklist. The individuals on the list were never informed that an army order prohibited them from going back home nor were they informed about the grounds on which they have been placed on the list. In the absence of any charges imposed on individuals named in the list, the only criterion seems to be their Malay Muslim identity. Thus a group of Thai citizens are being denied their basic constitutional rights because of their race.
A week earlier, reports surfaced that the Labour Ministry will send 42 young workers from the three southern provinces to work in Singapore, Oman or the United Arab Emirates by the end of October 2007. Once again little information was given under which criteria the workers would be selected and how this program would be operationalized and monitored. Seen the way in which programs publicized as opportunities for those in the three provinces have been lacking transparency, accountability and input in decision making by the local population and have rather exacerbated problems by violating human rights, one cannot help but wonder whether this policy is nothing short of expelling unwanted citizens out of the country.