Interview with the human rights lawyer facing judicial harassment from the Army

Despite threats and intimidation from state authorities, Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, a human rights lawyer and director of the Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF) of Thailand, stands firm on her claims about alleged torture and enforced disappearances committed by the Thai authorities in the restive Deep South of Thailand.

Pornpen is now accused of causing damage to the reputation of the Army’s Task Force 41 by submitting a report about alleged tortures cases committed by the Army to the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights. She received a warrant on 24 August summoning her to report to the police station in the southernmost province of Yala by 25 August, which has been postponed up to now.      

Pornpen has been active in providing legal aid for marginalized communities in Thailand, especially in the three southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat (referred to as the Deep South), where there has been an ongoing armed conflict between the Thai state and Muslim insurgent groups.

Since the Cross Cultural Foundation of Thailand was founded in 2002, it has played an important role in addressing loopholes in Thailand’s justice system. In 2004, after the state imposed both martial law and the emergency decree in the Deep South, the CrCF has been advocating the prohibition of torture, an end to a culture of impunity, and improved access to justice. Pornpen and the CrCF have been documenting torture cases committed primarily by paramilitary troops and soldiers since 2007.

Prachatai’s Kongpob Areerat talked with Pornpen about human rights violations in the Deep South, her human rights work, and the intimidation she has suffered from the authorities.

 

Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, Director of Cross Cultural Foundation (Photo curtesy of Deep Sout Watch)

 

Q: What have you been doing with the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights?

I have been providing legal assistance for people who can’t access justice. My work primarily focuses on people in the conflict areas of the Deep South, which have been under the emergency decree since 2005 and the Internal Security Act (ISA) since 2008. I’m helping those who have been affected by these laws.

Q: After the coup d’état, has there been any change in the three southern provinces?  

Communications have become more difficult. The junta has closed down many community radio stations in the South.

Do you think people in the Deep South welcome these changes after the coup?

I don’t really know for sure, but as i mentioned, communication gets more diffucult. The voices from lively radio stations are now silent and people find it more difficult to talk in public.

Q: Who has been most affected by these changes, resulting from the military coup?

Well, generally, ordinary people are affected of course. The situation hasn’t significantly changed. Before the coup, villagers, students, even Imams (Islamic religion leaders) were being arrested arbitrarily by the state, now they are still being arrested if the military and the police think that they support the Muslim separatist groups. It has been like this for a decade since they declared the emergency decree.

What are the effects of Martial Law, the emergency law and ISA in the Deep South?

Martial Law has given the military tremendous extrajudicial power. The authority does not need to present the warrants in time of arrests. The authority can also hold suspects in custody for 7 days without any legal restriction. The emergency decree is subjected to judicial review on its detention; court warrant is needed and the authority must ask for extension every 7 days maximum 30 days from the court. Both Martial law and ED is enforced in the three provinces; Narathivath, Pattani and Yala.

Do you think that the emergency law and ISA are counter-productive and driven more people to join the separatists?

I don’t know for sure, but after an episode of violent clashes in 2004, there were blacklash that might have driven some people to join the separatists. 

Do you think people in the Deep South want the peace dialogue between Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and the Thai state officials like the one in Febuary last year to be organized again?

Surely most of them do. People in the Deep South were excited about the peace talk that was held earlier last year. Many were talking about it through local radio stations and on other media.  

When did the torture cases in the Deep South start to intensify?

It escalated after the unrests in January 2004, when the separatists stole 400 guns from an armory and killed four soldiers in Narathiwat. This incident resulted in the violent repercussions from the state at Krue Se and Takbai in the same year. These incidents were followed by the disappearance of Somchai Neelapaijit. He was involved with torture cases because at the beginning he was the one who provided legal aid to torture victims. 

What are the major human rights violations in the restive Deep South?

I gave priority to torture and ill treatments. The number of cases related to enforced disappearance has decreased so far. Prior to 2004 and few years after, there were a lot of disappearance cases resulting from the escalation of violence in the Deep South that year and the state officials’ hard-handed approach to counter the insurgents. There were so many people who disappeared that year and it was difficult to keep track of them, because most of them were grass-roots people with no documentations  and some were spies of the insurgents groups.

 

I think a lot of disappearance cases are connected with torture. Most of the people who went missing were torture victims. The perpetrator could not return the torture victims to their communities after their traumatic experiences. There are around 30 disappearance cases documented in the Deep South between 2003-2012. 

Can you approximate the number of  victims of torture?

 

Well, many of these cases were not recorded. Our organization only started to record the torture cases in 2007. I believe that arbitrary arrests and tortures and other forms of abuse of power of the authority have been going on for a long time in the Deep South before we started our work here. The Muslim Attorney Center (MAC) has recorded approximately 300 such cases. We have recorded slightly more than 100 cases and National Human Rights Commission has recorded another 100 cases. There might be some overlap in these figures, but not much. No matter what, from these figures we know that they are hundreds of cases like this where Muslim people in the Deep South were being tortured and forced to confess. We will keep monitoring that the torture and other form of ill treatment are absolutely prohibited but it was not the case in the Deep South till today.

 

You officially submitted the report on torture in the Deep South to UN CAT (Covention Against Torture) committee at the office of the United Nations in Geneva on April 29-1 May 2014. What were the responses of the UN officials?

 

The commission had carefully inquired the report in detailed, but there are many questions that there was not been any official statement by the Thai government to the CAT committee.

 

How did Thailand’s representatives respond to the inquiries regarding the report from UN CAT committee ?

 

The Thai authorities did not know much about what was happening in the Deep South in relation to torture as they denied that torture was not happened so they did not have details to discuss. So they did not say much of anything when they were asked for more clarifications of torture cases. 

Have the human rights violations in the Deep South become worse after the coup d’état?

 

There hasn’t been any significant increase in numbers of cases , but nothing has changed. Cases of torture by the authority in the region are still occurring. Sometimes when the insurgents raid the military compounds or bomb certain areas then the authority will arrest more people and many might be subjected to torture and ill treatments.

 

Is it more difficult for you to work in the Deep South after the coup?

 

It has become more difficult in the Deep South and also throughout Thailand, there is limited space for civil and political rights activism.

 

What do you think about the justice system and human rights violations in Thailand after the coup?

What do you think? it is deteriorating and difficult to monitor the human rights violations due to lacking of capacity of CSOs and NGOs working on civil and political rights. The military operations are huge and much larger that NGOs communities. 

 What do you think would be the most effective solution to the southern conflict?

The Thai state needs to accept the identity and ways of life of the Muslim people. Democracy is a crucial component of this solution because people in this region would be able to participate and have a say in how they will be governed. They want their decisions to be taken into account in ther economic, social, political, and cultural development of the region. However, the political channel are closed and they can’t take part in this. They still don’t have their say in how the economy of their homeland should be developed or even in their choice of language in dealing with the state officials. They can’t express their cultural identity completely.

Some people think that Muslims in the Deep South have enjoyed many benefits that the Thai state could possibly provide. Some Thai state officials think that by giving the Muslims in the Deep South rights to practice religion, build mosques, and retain their Muslim last names, they should be satisfied. However, their distinctive identity and glorious history of the independent Pattani Kingdom have not been embraced by the state. If they want to be independent, then the Thai state should talk to them and see how much autonomy the state should provide.

The previous peace talks failed because they were not between the state and all the parties in the conflict, but were only between the National Security Council (NSC) and separatist representatives with the Malaysian government as mediator. But these talks were not inclusive of all the parties in the conflict.

Muslim people in the Deep South want to have freedom to determine their lives, but undermilitary rule they can’t. Since the start political turmoil in November 2013, prior to the coup, there has not been any further discussion between the Thai state and insurgent groups. During the peace talk in March 2013, some representatives of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the main separatist group, were forced to attend the talks, and when they came back, some of them were afraid to be arrested by the state authorities. Moreover, former political prisoners, detainees, women, and other minorities in the region still have no voice. Nothing has changed. Actually, the fact that this conflict has been protracted for a decade also has implications about how capable of the Thai state is.

 

 

 

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