The ghosts of past violations haunt Thailand. A particular case of mass death in the country’s troubled south is emblematic of a bitter conflict in which peaceable, blameless civilians are the principal victims.
A demonstration of around 1,500 citizens took place on 25 October 2004 in Tak Bai district of Narathiwat province. Those attending were protesting against what they believed was the unjust arrest of six villagers on charges of allegedly stealing guns from the local defence forces. The terms of martial-law in Thailand’s three southernmost, Muslim-majority provinces (Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat) - in place since January 2004 - made this protest illegal.
Everyone present was detained. They were then stacked, in horizontal layers, in trucks and transported to the Ingkayuthboriharn military base, six hours away from the vicinity of the Tak Bai police station where the protest had been held.
Eighty-five people died in what became known as the Tak Bai massacre; seventy-eight of them by suffocation and crush injuries on the way to Ingkayuthboriharn. At an event commemorating the two-year anniversary of the massacre in October 2006, one survivor recalled that in his truck, there were four layers of people and that everyone on the bottom layer had died. He survived because he was in the second layer from the top. Although he sustained back injuries that still cause him pain, he is alive.
The bloody south
Since the declaration of martial-law in January 2004, violence and brutality on all sides of the conflict have increased. While estimates of the precise death-toll vary, the International Crisis Group reported in June 2009 that over 3,400 people have been killed. Civilians, Muslim and Buddhist alike, have borne the brunt of the violence; one recent victim was a motorcycle-repairman who was shot and then burned alive (see “Recruiting Militants in Southern Thailand”, International Crisis Group, 22 June 2009).
In addition to the deaths from drive-by shootings, bombings, beheadings, extra-judicial killings and other violence, many communities have been affected by mass arrests of suspected or possible insurgents on official and unofficial national-security charges. Families lose breadwinners, children lose parents, and mothers lose sons for unspecified lengths of time while they are detained. In a conflict with as yet no solutions, what is clear is that the strategies employed have so far been unable to stem the violence and insecurity - of all kinds - in southern Thailand (see John Virgoe, “Thailand’s southern fix”, 17 November 2008).
The devastation of the continuing violence was particularly apparent during the five-year commemoration of the Tak Bai massacre. In the period after the massacre, protestors were charged with criminal offences. An outcry by human-rights activists led to the charges being dropped in late 2006; this reinforced calls for an investigation into how seventy-eight people died while in state custody. After many delays, a court in Songkhla province ruled at the inquest of the deaths on 29 May 2009 that state officials involved in the massacre had not acted improperly.
But the inquest ruling noted that: “The causes and circumstances related to the deaths were that they died of suffocation while in custody of officials who were deemed to have performed their duties according to their assigned responsibilities.” In other words, the court admitted that the seventy-eight people died while under the supervision of state officials, but that the state officials were either not responsible and/or the state murder was not criminal. It was a chilling outcome.
The power of prayer
The largest commemoration of the massacre this year took place in Pattani, one of the three southernmost provinces (along with Yala and Narathiwat, the area had been an independent sultanate that was colonised by Siam in 1902). In Bangkok too, university students organised a day of events. Students, family members of people affected by the violence, and others concerned filled an auditorium at the Thai Islamic Centre, near Ramkhamhaeng University. The morning and afternoon sessions were filled with a combination of lectures and viewing video montages of the massacre. The major news-media was not present during the massacre, but the events were recording by people using cellphones and other small cameras. Within a few days, the images were put on VCDs and began to circulate within Thailand, and were banned for a period of time by the then government of Thaksin Shinawatra.
As the day’s seminars came to a close, the students began preparing for the penultimate action of the day: a peaceful demonstration through the ritziest shopping-area of Bangkok. Beginning in front of Central World shopping-mall and winding through Siam Square, over 100 people carried banners with messages of peace and sorrow: “Raining tears in the eyes of a mother full of love,” “Six years without a guarantee of security,” “Why? Do we not possess the same sacredness and humanity as other people?” “Five years since Tak Bai: The oppression and destruction of culture.”
The demonstration ended in the plaza in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. The banners were laid out in horizontal lines, ten to fifteen in each line. As the next Muslim prayer-time approached, the religious among the group pulled out prayer-rugs, put them on top of the banners, and began to pray. Many Thais and tourists in the area were watching, and seemed captivated by what was taking place. A few drops of rain began to fall, and soon became a downpour. But for ten minutes, people continued to pray as the rain soaked them to the bone, kneeling on hard stone on top of messages calling for peace and an end to violence. The day ended with street theatre about civilians in the south being caught between state officials and insurgents.
Alongside the appeal for an end to violence, the commemoration had been marked by a call for Patani Merdeka (“Free Patani”), or independence for the Muslim-majority south. Almost six years into the violence, reports indicate that the central Thai state may be considering autonomy as a solution to the crisis. Whatever solution is eventually brokered, it is clear that accountability for recent and past violence is needed. The difficulty, as commentator Awzar Thi points out, is that the impunity in the case of Tak Bai is not an isolated aberration. Instead, as he notes: “Thailand’s police and security forces – or people working for them – routinely commit murder.”
The thirty-third anniversary of the 6 October 1976 massacre in Bangkok, in which unarmed students were beaten, lynched, and killed by rightwing state and para-state officials, passed without anyone being held to account for the deaths that day. Will future anniversaries of the Tak Bai massacre continue to share the same fate? The ability of Thailand’s people to live in peace and security may depend on the answer to this question.
Tyrell Haberkorn is a Research Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University. She specialises in issues of human rights and political violence. Among her writings is "At the limits of imagination: Ajarn Angun Malik and the meanings of politics" (Thai Feminist Review, 2007)