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Torture and Thainess: Losing fourth generation war in Deep South

On June 13, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights welcomed Thailand’s decision to enact the Prevention and Suppression of Torture Act. However, the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) is currently suing three authors of a report published earlier this year on alleged military torture practices in the Deep South. Ignoring the 12 Core Values of Thai People is how to lose Thailand’s 4GW in the Deep South.

Thailand’s Fourth Generation War

With the Deep South peace process stalemated due to the junta’s unwillingness to grant legitimacy to the potential dialogue partners such as Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and its unwillingness to accept the assistance of possible brokers such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, no progress has been made in the Deep South since the May 2014 coup. In fact, in 2014-2015 alone, at least 587 Thais were killed. Furthermore, there has been a definite trend towards the emergence of more radical Islamist armed militant organizations, including the Pattani Islamic Mujahideen Movement and a more visible role for the black Al-raya flag of jihadism.

There is no doubt that what the Thai Royal Armed Forces are facing in the Deep South is horrific. Other than the deliberate targeting of the Thai education system, including the assassination of teachers, monks, and the arson of schools, the separatist armed groups actively recruit child soldiers, according to a 2014 report by the Child Soldiers International and Cross Cultural Foundation. Children as young as 14 have been radicalised and used as child soldiers by the BRN. While most of these serve as lookouts or informers, some are fully indoctrinated and trained in the use of weapons. According to the report, “children go through a carefully structured process of indoctrination and training. Those who are selected to join the military wing of the armed group receive additional weapon and military training.” These children urgently need to be identified, removed from the insurgent groups’ ranks, counselled, and re-integrated into society.

Crucially, the report found these children have voluntarily joined the insurgent movements for the same reasons as adults, i.e., as the result of “community pressure and a sense of solidarity with the Malay-Muslim community combined with a sense of outrage at state repression and human rights violations”. The community-based nature of the fighting in the Deep South indicates a classic insurgency or “fourth-generation warfare” (4GW) – guerrilla tactics of attacking soft targets and retreating, an aversion to set battles, and the fact that a conflict is located in communities, with no clear front lines. The Deep South insurgency is a classic case of insurgents fighting to win hearts and minds to a distinct political, rather than military, goal. For example, the purpose of the BRN is to make the Deep South ungovernable, while the Pattani Islamic Mujahideen Movement’s goal is an Islamic state.

Also indicative of the conflict being an example of 4GW is the fact that the Royal Thai government refuses to accept that the southern insurgency qualifies as a domestic armed conflict in accordance with international humanitarian law. This is contradicted by the situation on the ground, where protracted armed violence between the Thai forces and armed organised groups, since at least 2004, suggests the current situation in southern Thailand is tantamount to a non-international armed conflict.

This is a deliberate choice to the reject the notion that a civil war is occurring in Thailand, an admission that the Thai military feels would harm the image of the Kingdom, yet the hundreds killed and thousands injured every year would suggest otherwise. In fact, the Deep South is the only active warzone in Thailand and justifies Thai military purchases of multi-million-dollar equipment, such as its recent purchase of 28 VT4 Chinese main battle tanks for 150 million USD. However, such tanks are neither targets for insurgent attacks nor are they able to function effectively in the settings preferred by insurgents, such as deep jungle or urban settings.

Torture: Verifying the Evidence

In 4GW, where the insurgents pass as civilians and do not wear uniforms, torture may appear to be an opportunity to extract information from suspected insurgents or even non-combatants suspected of having facilitated insurgent activity. However, torture is, generally speaking, ineffective. After a certain period, those being tortured tend to agree with anything the torturer says, resulting in conflicting and unclear information. In the vast majority of the world’s countries, torture is also illegal due to its immoral nature. In Thailand, torture is against the 12 Core Values of Thai People, especially the Sixth Core Value, i.e., maintaining morality, integrity, and wishing well to others, as well as being generous and sharing.

Yet, there is a significant body of evidence that torture routinely occurs in Thailand. In the most recent case, in February 2016, a joint report by the Cross Cultural Foundation, Duay Jai Group, and the Patani Human Rights Network documents 54 cases in which Thai security personnel allegedly tortured insurgent suspects between 2004 and 2015. Indicative of the fact the 4GW in the Deep South is an insurgency along ethnic lines is the fact that in all 54 cases, those allegedly tortured were ethnic Thai Malay Muslims.

These allegations have been vigorously and litigiously denied by the Thai security services, as they always are. On May 17, 2016, the military’s Internal Security Operations Command -Region 4, responsible for national security operations in the southern border provinces, filed a criminal complaint in Yala against Somchai Homlaor, Pornpen Khongkachonkie, and Anchana Heemmina, the authors of the report. The complaint accuses the authors of criminal defamation under the Penal Code as well as publicizing false information online under the Computer Crimes Act.

Multiple steps exist in evaluating torture claims. One is assessing the credibility of those publicising the claims. In the case of this report, all the authors are prominent human rights activists associated with well-known local non-government organizations. These activists have little to gain and potentially much to lose from publicising the claims of torture.

Specifically, if charged and convicted of defamation and publicising the information online, they face a 100,000 baht fine or a maximum of seven years in prison. In addition, their patriotism has already been questioned by ISOC, which asked if they were ‘Thai’ and alleged their actions were damaging national security. This attack on their patriotism opens them up to abuse from ultra-nationalists. Thus, the steps taken by these individuals and their NGOs are at high risk to themselves, with little obvious benefit, e.g. publishing the report is not a means of earning money.

Another step in weighing the credibility of claims of torture is assessing whether there was a pattern to the torture. For example, 13 complainants alleged torture was conducted by the Royal Thai Police at the Peace Protection Centre in the Southern Police Operation Centre, in Yala Province. The at-risk population is exclusively Thai Malay Muslims. Torture methods appear consistent, including threats against families, including rape of a wife; mock execution; sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation; and physical violence using blunt objects or strangling or water torture, so as not to leave cuts. In addition, multiple cases of oxygen deprivation, use of stress positions, and sexual assault were reported, including electric shocks to genitals. The consistency of these alleged incidents, together with the fact they closely follow other documented cases of torture, add credibility to the report.

Though in the majority of cases there appear to have been deliberate attempts to reduce visible evidence of torture, another standard for verifying the credibility of cases of torture is psychological medical evidence, as those tortured are likely to show evidence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In the case of the Deep South, between 2011 and 2013, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) adapted a version of the Istanbul Protocol, the gold standard for assessing PTSD. The adapted tool was administered by human rights groups to collect case information on allegations of torture dating from 2004-2013. The results were then analysed by medical experts, who found 77% had severe emotional stress. A full 58% had major depression and 40% were experiencing full-blown PTSD.

One final way to establish the veracity of complaints of torture is for the alleged victims to testify in court. This may be necessary as one of the positions ISOC has taken is to dismiss the allegation as entirely fictitious because no real names were used in the report. However, because of potential threats to the complainants as well as their families, opening oneself up to public scrutiny is a step rarely taken by torture victims, especially in countries where witness protection is not guaranteed by the law. Remarkably, six of the 54 alleged cases have agreed to have their anonymity waved and thus have risked potential harassment of both themselves and their families. The authors of the report have also undertaken to provide names to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The problem of torture in Thailand is widely accepted in the international community. In June 2014, the UN Committee Against Torture recommended Thailand “should take all the necessary measures to: (a) put an immediate halt to harassment and attacks against human rights defenders, journalists, and community leaders; and (b) systematically investigate all reported instances of intimidation, harassment and attacks with a view to prosecuting and punishing perpetrators, and guarantee effective remedies to victims and their families.” Yet, it was only last month that the Royal Thai Government undertook to put into place the Prevention and Suppression of Torture Act, and the effectiveness of this piece of legislation is yet to be tested.

Conclusion: Torture is Un-Thai

On June 13, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a heartfelt plea in his global update, pointing out hate is being mainstreamed around the world. The lessons of German fascism have left little doubt that hatred of the internal ‘Other’, in this case Thai Malay Muslims, can underpin torture. Yet, hate is against the 12 Core Values of Thai people, as it clearly contravenes the Sixth Core Value. Further, if any allegations are true, torturers not admitting credible reports of torture would appear to contravene the Eleventh Core Value, namely being unyielding to dark forces or desires, and having a sense of shame over guilt and sins in accordance with religious principles.

Moreover, torture as a tactic is counter-productive. The detection of torture or suspected torture in a 4GW situation turns the civilian population against the torturer, in this case, the Royal Thai Army. The mechanism for this is simple. As is common throughout Thailand, Thai Malays have large extended families, and the male relatives of those tortured – including children – are more easily radicalised. Torture exacerbates the insurgency and turns mainstream Thai Malay opinion against the Royal Thai Military. Thus torture as a policy damages national security – meaning it is against the First Core Value, to uphold the nation, religions, and the monarchy. Further, torture on an individual whim is against the Twelfth Core Value, by not putting the public and national interest ahead of personal interests.

Instead of counter-productive tactics, the Royal Thai Military should be implementing a strategy in line with advice by 4GW experts, who recommend limiting the appeal of the insurgents, so as to prevent them growing in number and thereby marginalising their political aspirations. For example, a societal and educational role for Pattani Malay is one of the demands militants have rallied around. Undermining this rallying cry by implementing a National Language Policy would confer a significant strategic advantage on the Royal Thai Military, a much greater one than can be gained by acquiring unsuitable battle tanks, and at a fraction of the cost.