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Tak Bai – An unhealed deep scar in Patani

The 20-year statute of limitations for the legal cases related to the Tak Bai incident will be running out in October 2024. The incident remains an obstacle to transitional justice in the Deep South, writes Hara Shintaro, as the culture of impunity in the region made it unlikely that justice will be delivered.

(Photo from The Motive)

On 8 November 2023, Adilan Ali-ishak, a former MP of Yala Province, submitted a letter to the parliamentary Committee on Law, Justice and Human Rights, as a representative of the Muslim Attorney Centre, asking the Committee to monitor and process the legal cases related to the Tak Bai incident, because the 20-year statute of limitations for the cases runs out within less than one year.[1]

The Tak Bai incident or massacre on 25 October 2004 is probably the most notorious in the violent conflict in Patani or the southern border provinces of Thailand. After the simultaneous bombings on 4 January of the same year, the entire region was put under Martial Law. By the time this incident happened, the situation had already worsened. The tensions between the authorities and the local Malay Muslims were getting even worse, mainly due to rampant arbitrary detentions of suspects under Martial Law.[2]

The Tak Bai incident started with a demonstration by local Malay Muslims in front of Tak Bai Police Station, demanding the release of six village defence volunteers (Chor Ror Bor in Thai). These volunteers had voluntarily come to the police station to report the theft of their weapons but were detailed by the police for allegedly provided weapons to the insurgents. The number of the demonstrators increased to the extent the situation became almost uncontrollable. The army decided to crack down on them with extreme force. The soldiers deployed there shot at the demonstrators, and 7 died on the demonstration site. After the protestors were subdued, all the male demonstrators (about 1,300 in total) were ordered to prostrate themselves on the ground and their shirts were removed. Then their hands were tied behind their backs, and they were forced to crawl to military trucks, where they were piled upon one after another like logs, in five to six layers. They were taken for interrogation to Fort Ingkhayutthaboriharn located in Pattani Province, more than 140 kilometres away from Tak Bai. The drive took five hours, resulting in the death of 78 people due to suffocation.

Even though such a large number of people were killed by the state security forces, surprisingly, no state officer has so far ever been charged over these atrocities. Thaksin Shinawatra, Prime Minister at the time of the incident, in a Club House program about the incident on 25 October 2022, instead of acknowledging his responsibility, told the audience to ask Prawit Wongsuwon, the then Commander-in-Chief of the army.[3] Prawit, on the next day, when asked about Thaksin’s mentioning his name, told the reporters to ask Thaksin.[4] Surayud Chulanont, appointed as Prime Minister after the military coup ousting Thaksin, apologised for the wrongdoing of the previous government without acknowledging any responsibility of the army. [5]  So far, there has been no political initiative whatsoever to assign responsibility for the incident.

Investigations into the unnatural deaths of the protestors were conducted, but the courts merely concluded the inquest by stating that they died due to lack of oxygen.[6] No criminal charges were filed against any officers in charge of the crackdown.

Families of the victims might be able to sue the state for compensation, however, the government has paid a large amount of money, maximum 7.5 million baht, as a ‘remedy’.[7] On top of that, many families have been so traumatised by the incident that they are highly reluctant to face the state to demand justice.

Therefore, this incident is still overshadowed by the culture of impunity, like many other brutal crackdowns on assemblies of political dissidents, such as 6 October 1976, Bloody May in 1992, and the crackdown on the Red Shirts in 2010. In all these incidents, including the Tak Bai incident, civilians were killed by the state security forces, but not a single person has ever been legally punished.

The crackdown in Tak Bai was strategically counterproductive too. A political leader of BRN told the author how difficult recruitment used to be. “Even though we told stories of Siamese atrocities again and again, young Malay Muslims simply could not imagine it. It was an extremely exhausting process to recruit just one young man. However, after the Tak Bai incident, we no longer had to explain how cruel the Siamese were. They had witnessed it in Tak Bai, and they tried to find us to join our struggle.”[8]

On 25 October of every year, events commemorating the incident take place, such as public forums, discussions, art exhibitions, etc. In the last two years, the number of such events has increased, probably because the 20-year statute of limitations runs out on 25 October 2024. It is highly unlikely that the current coalition government, which includes both Thaksin’s and Prawit’s parties, will take any political initiative to specify the responsibility for this incident. It is equally unlikely that the victims’ families, who are traumatized and have been given the ‘remedy’ money, will take any legal action. On top of that, the very neutrality of the legal system in this region has always been questioned. The most conspicuous case was the attempted suicide and then successful suicide of Khanakorn Pianchana, a senior judge of Yala Provincial Court, who left the message “Return verdicts to judges, return justice to people”, which strongly indicates that there has been political interference in the independence of the courts. In short, there is not much hope that justice shall be delivered to the local Malay Muslims in the southern border provinces.

However, unless this issue is seriously addressed, it will remain an enormous obstacle in transitional justice to solve the conflict. The culture of impunity in the southern border provinces has been protected by the draconian special laws, which constitute an almost perfect recipe for human rights violations. Until this scar is properly treated, the establishment of genuine or positive peace in this region is still very far away.

 

[1] Facebook post of Adilan Ali-ishak on 8 November 2023 (in Thai).  https://web.facebook.com/Adilan.Lawyer/posts/pfbid033YaERqZ1k88drgbFxnQp...

[2] Under Martial Law, military officers can detain anyone who is under suspicion in unofficial places of detention for seven days without charge or trial or judicial review.

[3] Thai PBS, 26 October 2022. https://www.thaipbs.or.th/news/content/320834 (in Thai)

[4] Matichon Weekly, 26 October 2022.  https://www.matichonweekly.com/hot-news/article_620643 (in Thai)

[5] Prachatai, 3 November 2006. https://prachatai.com/journal/2006/11/10360 (in Thai)  

[6] Prachatai, 1 July 2007. https://prachatai.com/journal/2007/06/12923 (in Thai)

[7] The Thai word เยียวยา means a financial payment by the government to victims of state violence without acknowledging any responsibility.

[8] A BRN political leader in charge of Narathiwat Province, interviewed in Terengganu, Malaysia in 2017.

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