On 11 February 2016 the Thai army threatened human rights defenders for documenting the military’s continued use of torture on detainees in the country’s south. Major General Banpot Poonpien, the spokesperson for a specialist counterinsurgency agency, the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), accused the human rights groups of fabricating accounts of torture to obtain funding from abroad. He also asked whether or not the groups had the mandate to investigate the work of state officers. He ended with the threat that they could be committing defamation by issuing a report referring to international law.
The army statement followed the release of a 49-page report by three local groups, the Cross Cultural Foundation, Duayjai and Patani Human Rights Organisation, documenting 54 cases of torture in the south of Thailand, 32 of them in 2014 and 2015 alone. The methods of torture documented include beatings, strangulation, mock execution, crushing of body parts (including the head), drowning, stress positions, electric shocks, sexual assault, extended confinement in extremely cold rooms or in the sun, and use of loud noises and other methods to disturb the detainee and prevent sleep. The torture was conducted inside major army camps and facilities in the south as well as at the emplacements of special force units throughout the region, including at the compounds of Buddhist temples where soldiers are situated.
Given the intense militarisation and intimidation of the populace in the south of Thailand, this number of cases is likely only a small fraction of the total number of torture cases in the south; to say nothing of Thailand as a whole. Documentation of torture and support for survivors in the south is especially difficult, and the work of these groups has been conducted in recent years with special caution and in accordance with international standards set down by the Istanbul Protocol. It also has been supported in part by the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. In addition to documenting and advocating on the incidence of torture, presently the groups are aiming to raise funds for the establishment of centres to provide comprehensive support to survivors: something that the government of Thailand has manifestly failed to do.
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) congratulates and commends these groups for their work on this report and with survivors of torture in the south of Thailand. It denounces the response of ISOC to the report. The allegation that the groups might have fabricated the report’s contents to attract funding is laughable. It would be funny but for the fact that the army in Thailand, which today has the dubious distinction of being the only country in Southeast Asia ruled outright by a military dictatorship, has the capacity to make good on outlandish threats of exactly this sort.
The most telling aspect of the army’s response to the report is not the manner in which denials of wrongdoing were issued but rather Major General Banpot’s rhetorical question of under what mandate—by what power and with what responsibility—the human rights groups scrutinized the work of state officers. This response reveals that the Thai army’s mentality remains “nobody has a right to investigate us”. It is indicative of the attitude that the army has and will continue to enjoy impunity for its crimes committed against civilians. This attitude is one of the motivations for the army to intervene repeatedly to impede, obstruct and destroy the prospects for democratization in Thailand. After all, it is a condition of democratization that military personnel must be subject to scrutiny and oversight by civilians. This condition is one that the Thai army cannot and will not tolerate, as shown clearly by the response of Major General Banpot to the human rights defenders’ report, as well as by its continued use of torture with impunity as documented in the report.
The AHRC urges all concerned groups in Thailand and abroad to join in solidarity with these rights defenders and send a clear and loud message to the Thai army that its bullying tactics will not be tolerated. The threat by ISOC to the human rights defenders deserves the strongest condemnation from all concerned members of the international community, especially all United Nations procedures concerned with the elimination of torture. That the invocation of international law by human rights groups should by construed as constituting some kind of defamation against the Thai army is not only nonsense, it is dangerous nonsense. The whole premise of international law is that where domestic law is lacking or deficient, it serves precisely the role that the human rights defenders in Thailand have assigned to it. The implication of the army officer’s statement is that the entire international legal regime lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the Thai military.
In this regard, it is notable that Thailand has already joined the UN Convention against Torture but has failed in its responsibility to translate the standards of international law into domestic equivalents, as required by the Convention. Thus, if Major General Banpot or his counterparts seek to criticize anyone in this regard, the Asian Human Rights Commission recommends that they turn their attention to the failures of their own government to fulfil its obligations under international standards to which it has voluntarily subscribed. They should cease laying the blame for the human rights abuses of the Thai military on those persons who do no more than document them, and seek to support the survivors of torture, arbitrary detention and other crimes under international law.