The code of omertà (silence) among mafia types is often portrayed as a form of honour among thieves. Something like not snitching on your mates, a lesson you learned in the school playground to show you were brave, principled even, and prepared to stand up to the sadistic bullying of small-minded authoritarians called teachers.
But with all due respect to any members of the ʼNdrangheta, Cosa Nostra or Camorra who might be reading this – bollocks.
Omertà works, not by some noble sense of silent sacrifice for the common good, but from sheer terror of what will happen to you if you do talk. It is the stock-in-trade tactic of the forces of darkness, those who prefer silence where crime, abuse of power, corruption, and impunity can flourish.
Like the Thai military.
Those who suffer detention or ‘attitude adjustment’ without charge or trial under Martial Law and/or the Emergency Decree are, if they survive until their release, often under instructions not to tell a soul about what happened to them while in jail.
Except that they won’t have been in jail. The Emergency Decree specifically bans holding suspects in ‘police stations, detention centres, penal institutions or prisons’, i.e. anywhere there is a system for checking the welfare of inmates and the behaviour of those guarding them.
The law actually mandates that suspects, who have not been found guilty of any crime, must be kept in some unregistered, unmonitored hideaway where torturers can practise their dark arts. No right to visits from lawyers or family or outside organizations like the National Human Rights Commission or the Red Cross. No right to bail. No right even to know where they are being detained.
So if someone decides to get out the electrodes and thumbscrews, nobody will know about it other than the torturers themselves. And the torturees, of course. Which explains the interest of the military authorities in mimicking the code of silence of organized criminals.
So ten out of ten in bravery for the victims of torture and their families who gave testimony to the Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF), the Duay Jai Group, and the Patani Human Rights Network for their report on the recent upsurge in allegations of torture in the Deep South by military and police personnel against Muslim Malay detainees.
Now since torture is illegal and a violation of human rights, the stated purpose of the report is to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. To improve the state of the nation by documenting crimes so that the authorities can do their statutory duty and suppress them.
But that’s not quite how the nice people at ISOC see it.
Rather than graciously thanking the organizations involved for their public-spiritedness and the valuable information on the alleged acts of torture detailed in the report, the military took a rather different approach.
First, ISOC spokesperson Maj Gen Banpot Poonpien accused the report of fabricating its evidence. It was all a pack of lies. How do they know without investigating each case? Because they say so.
Of course, being the alleged perpetrators might have clouded their judgement. But why would anyone risk the wrath of ISOC by concocting such fables? It was to obtain funding from abroad, say the soldiers.
Now the main non-Thai agency behind the report was the United Nations Fund for Victims of Torture. So in the eyes of the military, the UN is either determined to blacken Thailand’s international reputation, or total dupes. Or both. I think you need to be a high-ranking officer to acquire such xenophobic ignorance.
Next, the Maj Gen wants to know what mandate ordinary citizens have to monitor the performance of state officials. This is a novel view of the accountability of public servants, but one that they will find very comforting.
So the next time a teacher criminally assaults students and the clip goes viral, no action can be taken. If the traffic cop asks for a backhander, don’t bother reporting it.
And finally, Maj Gen Banpot threatens the authors of the report with defamation for the heinous crime of invoking international law, to wit the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Thailand of its own free will signed and ratified years ago. One assumes that according to ISOC, the Thai state can sign on to human rights treaties but Thai citizens cannot refer to them to protect their rights.
Since the publication of the report, its authors have been subjected to what is becoming standard practice when anyone questions what the security forces are up to: threats of prosecution; repeated ‘invitations’ for ‘friendly chats’/browbeating sessions; harassment of family members who have nothing at all to do with the alleged offence.
Maybe the code of omertà would have its virtues, if it could make ISOC shut up.
About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).