Thursday, August 6, 2015

A deep wound still festering in THAILAND’S far South

Until the government acknowledges the Tak Bai massacre as a state-sponsored atrocity, anger in Narathiwat will continue to fuel the insurgency.


More than 10 years after the Tak Bai massacre, the incident continues to haunt Thailand.

Successive governments have been dogged by the controversy ever since, but none has satisfactorily answered the questions arising from it.

Now Niran Pitakwatchara of the National Human Rights Commission is calling on the administration of Prayut Chan-o-cha to provide a clear timeframe for the process of seeking justice for the Tak Bai victims so that the old wounds can be healed. "It's been 10 years and counting already," Niran said this week. "We need to find an end to this affair or it will end up in limbo, like so many other cases."

On October 25, 2004, more than 1,000 Malay Muslims staged a protest in front of the Tak Bai Police Station in Narathiwat, demanding the release of six "village defence" volunteers detained on suspicion of supporting insurgents in the area.

The volunteers were part of a security arrangement that had been hastily mobilised by the government of the day, but the strategy was doomed to fail from the beginning - the volunteers were provided scant combat training or weaponry before being asked to put their lives on the line for the state. And yet, a decade later, the government appears to be repeating that mistake by outsourcing security duties to local residents as part of an initiative dubbed "the Thung Yang Daeng Model".

In 2004 the unarmed Tak Bai protesters were surrounded by security officials from various agencies. Shots were fired into the crowd, killing at least seven people. The remaining male protesters were punched, kicked and corralled into the back of military transport trucks bound for an Army camp in Pattani.

The government could argue that martial law was in place, prohibiting mass gatherings. But in reality the tragedy was shaped by the conduct of security officials, not any technicality of law. Its context was a longstanding culture of impunity among security forces in the Muslim-majority South, where an ongoing insurgency has claimed more than 6,000 lives since January 2004, when the curret wave of violence flared up.

By the time the military transport trucks reached their destination, Ingkayuthboriharn Army Base, 78 protesters had suffocated to death, the inevitable outcome of being bound and stacked prone, one on top of the other. The incident enraged residents and radicalised a new generation of Malay-Muslim insurgents.

Niran says he wants a clear timeframe for action once the Cabinet has acknowledged the Right Council's recommendations. "Let's have clear-cut discussions on solutions for the incident," he said.

The massacre has naturally been a huge stumbling block for peace talks between the government and the rebels. The Council has called on the government to establish committees to handle protests and other gatherings in the South and to kick-start a process to aid victims and their families.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has said the matter will be on the agenda at the next Cabinet meeting and that agencies such as the Social Development and Human Security Ministry would be assigned to follow up on the recommendations.

Such pledges to heal the wounds of Tak Bai have, however, been made by authorities before and have proved empty.

During his time as prime minister, General Surayud Chulanont apologised for the incident on behalf of the government. But the state apparatus and much of the general population greeted his statement with indifference. After that, Thailand squandered any chance of building on the expression of regret.

In societies regarded as open and free, massacres of such scale prompt the erection of monuments to commemorate the tragedy and express the state's remorse. It is unfortunate that Thailand doesn't want to take that route. In lieu, discussion of financial compensation for the families of victims is a start, but until we acknowledge the true scale of the Tak Bai atrocity, the deep wounds in many hearts will remain unhealed. The Nation Bangkok


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