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The return of an unconscious body

Sumaiya Minka had to spend the night in great anxiety after her husband, Abdullah Isomuso, was detained as a suspect by the security forces on 21 July 2019 after he finished the Maghrib prayer (the prayer after the sunset). He was taken for interrogation to Ingkhayutthaborihan Fort, the largest military installation in the southern border provinces of Thailand. Such detentions are not uncommon in the conflict area where special laws, including Martial Law and the Emergency Decree, are enforced. She did not know why Abdullah had to be detained. She was only told that she would know after he arrived at the interrogation centre inside the Fort.[1]

The next morning, Sumaiya went to the Fort to visit her husband. She was shocked when she was told by officials there that Abdullah had been rushed to the ICU of Pattani Hospital. Prior to his detention Abdullah had been fit and healthy. Since she married Abdullah about 8 years ago, her husband had never been hospitalised. For her, it was impossible that her husband’s health could deteriorate so drastically.[2]

Abdullah was found unconscious inside his cell in the interrogation centre inside the sprawling military base at 9 am on 22 July. The doctors found an accumulation of excess fluid inside the brain, suggesting that he had suffered from a shortage of oxygen for about half an hour. However, as in similar previous cases, the doctors only suggested the medical condition of his brain, but what had caused this condition was something that would never be explained.

With his brain severely damaged and unresponsive, even if his physical condition recovered, the best thing the family could expect was to recover his unconscious body.

Abdullah’s case is not the first in the southern border provinces of Thailand in which a suspect detained under the special laws was found dead or unconscious after an unnaturally drastic deterioration of health.

On 19 March 2008, a local imam, Yapha Kaseng, from Rueso District, Narathiwat Province, was detained together with two of his sons after their house had been searched and the security forces found nothing suspicious. They were brought to a military post inside a local temple, where on 21 March he was tortured by security officers for hours. He was forced to lie on the ground, and his chest was repeatedly stamped on until one of his ribs was broken and penetrated his lung, causing his death.

The family won the civil case and the court ordered the government to pay compensation of 5.2 million baht.[3] However, the criminal case against the security officers who had tortured the imam was dismissed by the Narathiwat Provincial Court. Instead, the court told the family to bring the case to the military courts. This was effectively a legal dead-end because individuals cannot bring cases to military courts. Only the authorities can do that.[4]

In the military base where Abdullah was found unconscious, at least two men had been found dead before Abdullah’s case.

On 30 May 2010, Sulaiman Naesa, who had been detained for suspected involvement in the insurgency, was found to have hanged himself by using a hand towel tied to the iron frame of the window inside his cell in the military base’s interrogation centre. When he was found dead, his feet were touching the cell floor. The explanation that Sulaiman had committed suicide was not convincing at all for his parents because it is among the most serious sins in Islam. According to a press release from ISOC Region 4 the day after Sulaiman’s death, his parents visited him the day before he died. They gave him the towel that he hanged himself with. “They chatted for a while, then Sulaiman crouched down and wiped his parents’ feet as if to say good bye.” But his parents stated that they did not visit him on that day (29 May 2010).[5] Sulaiman’s body had a large gash under his genitals, apparently made by some sharp object. His father said the blood from the gash had not yet dried when the body arrived at his house. Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand and her forensic team said the gash was probably made by ants found around the genitals.[6] Sulaiman’s father wondered how big the ants must be to cause such a large gash on a human body. Allegations of torture were heard from human right activists, but the actual cause of Sulaiman’s death remains unknown to this day. The only way to know for sure whether there had been torture or not was to conduct an autopsy, but the parents refused to do that.[7]

Suspicions that torture is practised by the security forces in the conflict area of the southern border provinces have existed for a long time. The authorities have tried to dismiss such allegations by stating that there has been no policy to torture suspects detained under the special laws. However, the latest case of Abdullah Isomuso, with the unnaturally sudden deterioration of his health during detention, only strengthens these suspicions.

The spokesperson of ISOC Region 4 stated that if any officer involved in Abdullah’s interrogation had committed a crime, they would ‘face severe punishment’.[8] Unfortunately this statement is not convincing for at least two reasons. First, under Martial Law, security officers are not responsible for any damages or injuries caused by them during operations. In other words, they have strong legal immunity. No officers have ever been punished under criminal law. Second, although Thailand has signed the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), it has not yet ratified the convention or passed appropriate legislation. At this moment, there is no legal framework to criminalise torture or punish torturers.

The Commander of the 4th Army Region promised to set up a fact-finding committee[9] to investigate Abdullah’s case, as in previous cases of this nature. However there is no guarantee that this committee will be able to function independently. It remains under the strong influence and control of the military, and the neutrality of the committee is highly questionable.

Under these circumstances, the real cause of Abdullah’s sudden deterioration in health will remain unknown, as in the previous cases, and there is no guarantee that this will be the last case. The suspicions of the local people are still strong. The authorities should fully recognise that such cases only exacerbate the situation in the conflict area, and offset any efforts at peace-building. Injustice and the sense of collective victimhood are among the root causes of the conflict. Any operation by the security forces that fits into the narrative of historical injustice will create and strengthen the sense of collective victimhood among the Malay Muslim population in southern Thailand.[10] This, in turn, will do no good for the already fragile and stagnant peace process.

If the government is serious about conflict resolution in the southern border provinces, it should consider the following agenda. First is the enforcement of the special laws. The victims mentioned above were suspects detained under the special laws in force in the conflict area. Two of the special laws allow security officials to detain suspects. Martial Law allows security officials to detain suspects anywhere for seven days without a warrant. The Emergency Decree stipulates that a suspect can be detained for 30 days either in Ingkhayutthaborihan Fort or the Police School in Yala after a warrant is issued by the courts. Before issuing a warrant, there must be acknowledgement by the military, the police and the local administration. Therefore, the authorities usually detain a suspect based on the power allocated by Martial Law first (without any warrant) for seven days. If the detention needs be extended, the authorities can prepare a detention warrant under the Emergency Decree during those seven days – a sufficiently long period of time for that.[11] Under these special laws, anyone in the conflict area can be detained as a suspect for as long as 37 days without committing any crime. So far, almost all security-related detainees have been Muslims of Malay ethnicity. Many among them, including Abdullah Isomuso, were detained only on allegations obtained from other detainees without any other evidence. On top of that, more than 70 percent of security cases have been dismissed by the courts for the lack of evidence.[12] This indicates a serious lack of effectiveness of the special laws.

Cases of unnatural death or deterioration in health are always suspected to be the result of torture, partly due to the unchecked power and immunity granted to security officials by the special laws.

For these reasons, the call from the local MPs in the conflict area from various parties to evaluate the enforcement of the special laws,[13] often described as ‘draconian’, should be seriously considered if the government still holds human rights to be part of the national agenda as announced by PM Prayut on 18 February 2018.[14] By the same token, the CAT must be ratified and legalised. The basic human rights of security suspects will never be guaranteed unless torture is criminalized under the country’s laws.

Apart from this, in order to investigate cases where human rights violations are suspected, the government should set up a reliable fact-finding committee that is free from the influence and interference of the military. Under a military government, the involvement of observers from international agencies might be necessary.

Even though these suggestions are not sufficient to eradicate the misuse of power by the security officials, these actions might at least function as a deterrent to human rights abuses. However, if the authorities continue to enjoy almost limitless powers of detention and an extremely high degree of immunity, there will be more cases like Abdullah’s.

On 26 July, Abdullah’s relatives posted on Facebook that Abdullah’s seven-day detention period was over.[15] During this, the ICU where he was being treated had been guarded by security officials. Now he has been returned to his family as a free man, still lying unconscious on a hospital bed.

 

[1] Interview of Sumaiya Minka by Wartani (in Patani Malay with subtitles in Thai) https://web.facebook.com/wartanimap/videos/919299101749638/.

[2] Interview of Sumaiya Minka by BBC Thai (in Patani Malay with subtitles in Thai)  https://web.facebook.com/BBCnewsThai/videos/507510213327699/?v=507510213327699.

[5] The details of Sulaiman Naesa’s mysterious death are covered in ‘Thailand’s Tropical Gulag’ by Al-Jazeera. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QB1Cwf76Po8&t=1s

[7] Al Jazeera, ibid.

[10] For more detailed discussion on the sense of collective victimhood, see Muhammad Arafat Bin Mohamad. 2018. “Memories of collective victimhood and conflict in southern Thailand” in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 49(2), pp 204–226 June 2018.

[11] An unofficial translation of Martial Law is available at http://thailawforum.com/laws/Martial%20Law.pdf.

A English translation of the Emergency Decree is available at: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Emergency_Decree_on_Public_Administration_in_State_of_Emergency,_BE_2548_(2005).