Submitted on Mon, 7 Mar 2016 - 02:04 PM
A human rights activist from Thailand’s Deep South speaks about her motivation for co-founding a human rights organization, after her own experience of a family member being harassed. Since the start of 2016, she has been repeatedly harassed by the military due to a report, co-written by her, revealing allegations of torture by the state.
Anchana Heemmina, nickname Mumtaz, aged 42, has already been visited and summoned by the military three times since the start of 2016. Anchana is one of the people responsible for compiling a report on the status of torture and other inhumane acts in the Deep South in 2014-2015. The report, written in collaboration with the Patani Human Rights Network and the Cross Cultural Foundation (CCF), collected information from over 50 victims. The report details the inhumane practices against those detained under martial law.
Not only has Anchana been “visited” or “taken out for coffee” by the military, she has also received criticism from many sides, including the military and on social media. On 12 February 2016, Col Pramote Prommin, spokesman for the 4th Region Forward Command of ISOC, said that the people who compiled this report had malicious intentions toward the state and were attacking its image on the international stage. He accused the report for recycling information to mash together a report “suitable for the money spent to sponsor it.” The Colonel even said that this report was an “old technique” used by civil society groups to damage the state’s credibility. Anchana has even been criticized on social media for “accepting foreign funding to destroy Thailand”.
Around 12 years ago in the Deep South, human rights violations increased sharply in degree. At that time, ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra closed the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), installing in it place the much less popular police. Since then, the Thai state has responded to the separatist movement in the area with harsher military measures, a practice followed by succeeding administrations. These measures include sending a large number of troops to the region and implementing security laws such as the emergency decree and martial law. These special security laws have opened a loophole for authorities to detain alleged offenders for up to 37 days without charge. These 37 days have become a window of extrajudicial detention, with beatings, torture, and enforced disappearances of suspects in cases relating to national security.
Anchana is from Saba Yoi District, Songkhla Province. She graduated from Kasetsart University with a BA in Forestry, and from the Prince of Songkla University, Hat Yai campus, with an MA in Business Administration. She worked in an office before setting up her own business. A sudden, unexpected event in her family life was the catalyst that made her want to stop human rights violations against citizens of the three southernmost provinces or Patani. As of now, Anchana is working in various civil society sectors, but is also still running her car care and cloth business to support herself. The NGO work, she says, is “in response to my own conscience.” “Allah gave me a chance, and sent people to help me so that I may see the problems of my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters in the area. Why should I not repay Allah by helping others?” said Anchana.
While civil society groups in the area are focusing on the peace talks, Anchana is one of the few still focusing on exposing human rights violations to the public, because she believes that peace is impossible without justice.
Why did you decide to work in human rights? What was your job previously?
Before, when I watched the news on TV, I wondered why Muslims were so violent, in direct conflict with the tenets of peace that our religion teaches. But I didn’t question it very much, and I still thought that the police and the military were “good.” I just continued running my small business. However, when my younger brother-in-law was taken in 2008, everything changed for me. My brother-in-law was detained by the military after marrying my younger sister, Pattama Heemmina. They had only been married for two months. I was so shocked; how could something like this happen to us? Our shop even had customers who were soldiers and police. When I heard the news, I immediately drove from Saba Yoi district (Songkhla Province) to Yala police station. I saw my little sister clutching the prison bars, talking to her husband at the police station. I contacted everyone I could; I didn’t understand the process. I found a lawyer, and got swindled out of legal fees many times.
The court didn’t grant bail, so I had to go and petition at many military camps. I waited to meet military and police higher-ups, but none of that did any good. Legal fees for only four months accumulated to almost 200,000 baht. Therefore, I decided to change tactics. At peace or human rights forums I would raise my hand and say, “What I have experienced is not just at all.” Sometimes this would cause a stir and it was then that I understood what it meant to be stigmatized by your community. For example, they would call my sister a “separatist’s wife.” After working in civil society for a bit I met Phi Noi (Pornpen Kongkajornkiat), Director of the CrCF, and I read up on the judicial process and human rights to inform myself on these matters.
In 2010, the court dismissed my brother-in-law’s case. Then I worked on the process of getting compensation, and I received more knowledge and experience relating to this. I found that many of the suspects in national security cases are inhumanely treated. They can only talk to their loved ones through a window and prison bars. Their feet are chained whenever they walk. I feel that people aren’t animals to be treated this way. If a child of an alleged offender sees their father in such a state, think how they would feel.
My little sister and I founded Duay Jai [With Heart] to give aid and advice to the families of jailed suspects. We inform them of their rights and try to help them get justice. Working with these inmates led us to work on the issue of torture. When we visited them to inform them about the judicial process and to give them moral support, we learned from the prisoners themselves about how they had been beaten and tortured, and used this information to write the report.
How has the issue of torture progressed in the past two to three years?
Torture has only increased. The authorities never admit that any form of torture has occurred. They often think that whoever they “catch” is one-hundred percent, definitely guilty, so they can do anything they want to them. They don’t even view the alleged offenders as humans, and even think that they’re helping the society and the nation in “catching bad guys,” taking great pride in their work. Not only that, there’re so many roadblocks and obstacles preventing you from petitioning against the alleged perpetrators of torture, so the voices of those who have been tortured are often suppressed.
If there is a petition sent to the National Human Rights Council (NHRC), the most that can be done is that they will forward the complaint to relevant departments, but there won’t be any investigation. When the CrCF submitted the report to the UN, the state authorities got all in a tizzy, trying to suppress the news and threatening the victims further.
Outsiders may think that the situation has improved, but that is only due to the state saying that they will hold to human rights standards, which is burying the voices of those whose rights are being violated by the state. The state also tries to shut out any options for petitioning, or even discrediting these petitions.
I want to say to the state that the use of torture only increases the violence in the area as well as preventing unity and solidarity. Some alleged offenders may actually be involved in the separatist movement, but instead of convincing them to leave the movement, they just beat and torture them. One of the reasons that separatists think differently from the state is that they feel that the state harms them like this.
According to the latest report by Duay Jai and CrCF, alleged offenders who are imprisoned are increasingly younger and younger. How do you view this development?
According to the statistics, those imprisoned are usually in the 25-35 age range, and seem to be decreasing in age. This means that the state is viewing youths as militant separatists. If this assumption is correct, then that means the separatist movement is training soldiers when they are teenagers. If this assumption is incorrect, then they have caught the wrong people, and will even push these detained youths toward actually joining the separatist movement, because they have been harassed and denied justice.
Why don’t we hear more about enforced disappearances?
There are fewer cases of enforced disappearances because we’re having extrajudicial killings instead. Most of them occur in armed confrontations, and most of the victims are ex-detainees who the court released or who were granted bail. The ex-detainees are afraid that they will be caught and tortured again, so when the military and police start surrounding their house, they won’t stand for it and will refuse to go back to jail. They’ll fight, preferring death to prison. Others run away in fear and are shot down. Even worse, sometimes they give themselves up, but the officials just barge into their house and allegedly shoot them dead anyway.
Aren’t you in constant fear, working against the state like this?
I try to view it more as a challenge: what can I do to make them understand our determination, motivation, and our good intentions, so that they can stop violating human rights.
What do you think is the role between justice and peace? Nowadays, the military likes to say that they have “surpassed” human rights violations issues.
These two issues are very closely intertwined. Many people like to speak of their political intentions rather than justice, because it is much more difficult to deliver justice to everyone. Speaking of things like autonomous governing rights and other abstract issues are just easier.
On the other hand, issues of justice are much more close at hand and affect our everyday lives. For example, take the issue of discrimination. At this moment, both Buddhist Thais and Malays are feeling discriminated against. For example, Buddhist Thais think that the state is giving more educational opportunities to Malays, as seen in the scholarships and university admission quotas. Meanwhile, Muslim Malays view that they are being generalized as separatists. Why can Siamese people pass through road checkpoints quickly and without being searched, but when it is a Malay driving, they are stopped and searched?
The Patanian elite often talk of solving social problems by giving people the right to determine their own destiny. However, if you go and actually investigate what the people want, the number-one demands are tangible, material demands: having enough to eat, rights violations, and safety. Issues of governance are much more removed from daily life.
How should the issues of justice be solved?
The state authorities should change their attitude. Officials coming here shouldn’t just think that they’re coming to increase the stability of the nation, but instead, to work for the citizens. Remove the focus on “stability,” and instead replace it with “citizens” and “humanity.” The “country” doesn't have a heart and soul, but the people who are being violated and tortured do. The hearts and souls of the local people should be the state’s first priority. In the end, whether or not they were wrong, they should still receive justice, and should not have their rights repeatedly violated. Doing this will create a spark that will ignite a whole whirlwind of never-ending violence. We want to end this awful cycle.
Do you have hope for peace?
I’m always looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. We have to keep our eyes on it because it motivates us to keep going. Sometimes, we might get lost in the dark tunnel and lose sight of it, but we must, must find our way to it anyhow.
Translated from Thai into English by Asaree Thaitrakulpanich