There is one way the latest WikiLeaks deluge could help beleaguered U.S. officials. It might encourage an Iraq-weary American public to forget the last WikiLeaks deluge: war logs suggesting that the U.S. military had ignored torture by its Iraqi allies. But those allegations still resonate in Thailand, and not just because this staunch U.S. ally is fighting an insurgency of its own. Since 2004, more than 4,400 people have been killed in southern Thailand in a bloody conflict between government security forces and shadowy separatist militants. Most Thais are Buddhists, but the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are largely populated by Malay-speaking Muslims, who have chafed under rule from faraway Bangkok for a century.
I recently visited the region with director Orlando de Guzman to co-produce an al-Jazeera documentary on the death of a 25-year-old militant suspect called Sulaiman Naesa. He was detained in May at Pattani's vast Ingkhayutthabariharn army camp. The Thai army says Sulaiman confessed to his part in nine killings, then later tied a towel to the bars of his cell and hanged himself. Sulaiman's parents say their son was a semi-literate villager, not a militant, and that the blood and bruising on his corpse proves that soldiers tortured him to death.
What really happened? We'll probably never know. His parents saw no point in an autopsy. "How could we fight the government?" asked his mother Maetsoh. But Sulaiman's case should refocus international attention on human-rights violations in southern Thailand specifically, on an ever growing body of evidence that suggests that the military routinely tortures Muslim detainees. It is also worth asking why the U.S. is remaining quiet about it.
The Thai army was keen to show our crew a human face. Lieut. General Pichet Visaijorn, then the regional commander, gave us a personal tour of his pet projects. They included free dental surgery for local people at his headquarters in Yala. We watched an army dentist fit an elderly Muslim with a set of false teeth. The man grinned. "Are they beautiful?" urged Pichet, grinning back. "Do you like them?" Then the smiles faded. Our next stop was Ingkhayutthabariharn, home to the military's main detention and interrogation facility. It is called the Reconciliation Promotion Centre an Orwellian touch, considering the camp's notoriety. For Muslims, Ingkhayutthabariharn is a "terrifying word," says Sunai Phasuk of New York Citybased Human Rights Watch. "They know anything could happen to them in there."
Sulaiman was found dead in a one-story cellbock that soldiers call "the resort." "Everyone was scared there," a former inmate told us. The inmate said he spoke briefly with Sulaiman, who said that soldiers had kicked him so hard in the stomach that he hadn't eaten for four days. He said he saw detainees beaten and plastic bags put over their heads to simulate suffocation. So many detainees have complained of torture in southern Thailand, and for so many years, that it is amazing the world hasn't paid more attention. Abuses reported by detainees include severe beatings, electric shocks, forced nudity, exposure to extreme cold or heat, needles inserted into open wounds and holding detainees' family members hostage including, in one case, a 6-year-old boy.
The army has not called these allegations isolated incidents or blamed rotten apples; it has flat-out denied them. "We have never committed torture," Lieut. General Udomchai Thamsarorat, the regional commander, told me. "We're here to help people, not hurt them." Blanket denials don't impress the experts. "The security forces continue to use torture even though senior commanders claim to have prohibited it," the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in November. In the two months leading up to Sulaiman's death, Amnesty International received eight reports of torture six from Ingkhayutthabariharn.
Denials don't fool the locals either. In Pattani, I know a teacher of Malay who, as an exercise, asked his students all Muslims to write a newspaper-style report. A dozen of them turned in stories about relatives or friends who had been detained or tortured. When I asked a Muslim paralegal why more people don't speak out about such abuses, he replied, "We hate the army, but we fear them also. The fear is stronger than the hate." Such views seemed to barely register with the officers I spoke to. Lieut. General Udomchai said he was "100% confident" that his troops were winning Muslim hearts and minds. A civil affairs officer told me that local people "trust us more and more," before explaining that Thailand was one big loving family in which Muslims were "naughty teenagers."
Torture is illegal and morally repugnant. It's also counterproductive: stories of abuse by security forces are potent recruiting tools for insurgents. Though torture is well proven to produce unreliable intelligence, the military still evidently regards it as an acceptable and effective weapon against a ruthless enemy. Sometimes, torture is used not to extract information but to exact revenge for murdered colleagues. Insurgents regularly burn, behead or mutilate the corpses of soldiers they have killed.
Who can hold the Thai military to account? Not the courts: an emergency law in southern Thailand grants the security forces immunity from prosecution. And not Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is beholden to the army for crushing the anti-government Red Shirt protests in May. The U.S. should have more luck. Its security ties with Thailand go back more than half a century, and it has trained more Thais under its International Military Education and Training program than any other nationality. But there's a problem. On the subject of torture, the U.S. has no moral high ground left to occupy especially in Thailand.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks on the U.S., the Central Intelligence Agency set up a global network of secret prisons where terrorism suspects were subjected to waterboarding, or simulated drowning, and other forms of torture. The system's first two detainees were brutally interrogated at a prison in Thailand in 2002. In November, the U.S. Justice Department decided that CIA officials would not face criminal charges for destroying videotapes that showed the torture.
The CIA never revealed the exact location of its secret prison, reportedly closed in 2003. And Thailand denied all knowledge of it. Yet many of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques refined at these facilities prolonged stress positions, sleep deprivation, use of dogs keep resurfacing in detainee testimony to international human-rights groups. This is not proof that Americans are teaching Thais how to torture, but it isn't a coincidence either. The Thai army seems to have adopted the worst practices of the only military it knows and admires more than itself.
In January, Thailand's insurgency will enter its eighth year. Peace doesn't stand a chance until Thailand's generals see torture for what it is: a cancer in their ranks. Want to win the hearts and minds of Muslims? Then investigate and prosecute the soldiers who abuse them. What people really want is justice, not free dentures.