Losing hearts, minds and allies in Thailand's south
Extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests abound in troubled region
Imam Mahamapauli Kueji has refused to cooperate with the Thai military after an unjustifiable killing in his village (photo by Will Baxter)
Imam Mahamapauli Kueji was all that the Thai military could hope for in an ally.
Known more commonly as “Babor Lee”, or pondok headmaster, in the village of Namdam where he runs a 200-year-old traditional Islamic boarding school, Mahamapauli had stood shoulder to shoulder with military officers during meetings where they addressed local villagers.
Mahamapauli made sure people came to the meetings. He spoke about peace and cooperation.
In Thailand’s southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, where more than 5,300 people have been killed during a decade-long insurgency, the Thai military has been working hard to improve its public image in recent years. The predominantly Malay Muslim population looks upon most outsiders with suspicion, so the chance to collaborate on village outreach programs with a respected local leader like Mahamapauli was invaluable for the army.
“When we would have a meeting with villagers I would talk to them, along with the soldiers, about not being an insurgent, not attacking the military, about striving for peace in South Thailand,” said Mahamapauli.
People would come from across Tungyangdaeng district in Pattani province. Sometimes there were insurgents at the meetings. If nothing else, they too at least listened.
But that was all shattered in October last year when the Thai military rolled into Mahamapauli’s village, shot dead two insurgents and then allegedly executed Abdulaziz “Aziz” Salaeh, a 26-year-old villager.
At about 2:30 in the afternoon of October 15, a large military convoy drove into Namdam village.
“The soldiers jumped down from their pick-up trucks and ran directly toward a nearby house and started shooting,” said Aziz’s mother Yaenass-ah. “I was very shocked.”
Two suspected insurgents were killed at the house. Shortly afterward, a group of rangers came to Yaenass-ah’s house and ordered everyone to come outside.
“I didn’t want to go because it was safer inside the house. But Aziz said we should go because we hadn’t done anything wrong. We are clean people,” she said, meaning not involved in the insurgency.
Aziz, Yaenass-ah and Aziz’s sister-in-law were then taken across the road to a neighbor’s house.
“Then one of the soldiers touched Aziz on the shoulder and said he wanted to take him somewhere,” said Yaenass-ah. “I don’t understand Thai so I didn’t really understand what they were saying.”
Aziz was first taken out of sight to a nearby area where rubber trees are grown. After that he was brought back to his house so that the soldiers could search it for weapons and other evidence. Then, after the search was completed, Aziz was taken to the house where the insurgents had been holed up.
The village was quiet. Time passed. Then, more shots.
“At 3:30pm I heard more gunfire, and then again at around 4:30,” said Yaenass-ah. “At about 7pm, the rangers started moving out. We were told [by a soldier] that Aziz was taken back to Wangpaya camp for questioning. We didn’t know then that he was already dead."
At around 9pm, after the family had checked to see if Aziz was being held at any of the military camps in the immediate area, they learned that a hospital in Tungyangdaeng had an unidentified body in its morgue.
Aziz’s brother Mahamaarsueming and cousin Jamilah Jekyee went to have a look.
“When I saw the body I did not even know if it was Aziz because it had changed form so much – there were so many wounds in his body,” said Jamilah. “The body looked like another person. The face was broken from shooting. It was so swollen.”
Abdulqahhar Aweaputeh, a lawyer from the Muslim Attorneys Center who is representing Aziz’s family, said that the incident was an “extrajudicial killing”.
“We have information from an autopsy showing that he was beaten badly before being killed,” said Abdulqahhar. “He was smashed with a blunt object on the back of the head and under the jaw. He was stabbed all over the body with a small weapon.”
The Thai military tells a very different story, claiming that Aziz resisted arrest and then fired first after breaking free.
“Abdulaziz ran away from the [insurgent’s] house and then clashed with the armed security forces,” said Col Pramote Prom-in, spokesman for the Thai military’s Internal Security Operations Command Area 4, by email. “So the officers had to defend themselves.”
He went on to explain that Aziz’s body was shown to the village headman and sub-district village headman, who could not identify it, which is why it was taken to a morgue.
“The officers brought the corpse to the hospital without the intention to cover up [Aziz’s death],” he said, pointing out that they were just following army regulations.
However, there is no mention of why Aziz’s family members were not summoned to identify the body, despite the fact that Aziz was with his mother and sister-in-law when he was taken into custody earlier that day.
Yaenass-ah holds a photograph of her late son Aziz (Photo by Will Baxter)
Extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and other violent incidents carried out by the Thai security forces are cancelling out much of the goodwill established between them and the local population, say rights monitors.
The killing of Aziz was “very controversial”, said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch based in Pattani.
The number of cases of violence committed by the military against civilians has actually decreased in the last couple of years, he said. “[But after] a silly mistake like this, everything you have done is gone. It is more difficult than before to regain trust.”
Such incidents make it “almost impossible for the military to win the hearts and minds of local Muslims” and inhibit attempts at “de-radicalizing the population”, said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand at Human Rights Watch.
In Namdam village, the repercussions from the killing have had a severe polarizing effect.
“Before Aziz was killed the people and military had been working together, but since that incident there has been no cooperation,” said Mahamapauli.
“I don’t want fighting between insurgents and the military because it is useless for development, for life, for peace. The people in the three provinces do not benefit from fighting,” said Mahamapauli.
But now, he says, he refuses to be a part of the military’s community engagement programs.
Sunai believes that a “glaring lack of an impartial and serious investigation” into Aziz’s killing and similar cases end up fueling ill will further.
“Muslims see a stark contrast between how the military investigates cases where there are Buddhist victims and cases where there are Muslim victims,” Sunai said.
“A case like this is used again and again to recruit new members and justify violence,” he added.
Arbitrary arrests and non-fatal shooting incidents have also taken a toll on relations.
On January 21 of this year, the Thai army entered the coastal village of Tanyongpao in Pattani province at around 11pm.
The power had been cut earlier that day and the village was shrouded in darkness.
Medee Awea, 26, had just sat down at a tea and coffee shop when a group of soldiers emerged and pointed their weapons inside at the patrons.
“Medee stood up and started to walk home,” said Abdulrazak Abdulrahman, who at the time was making coffee in the cafe.
The soldiers called out to him twice. When they fired into the air, Medee started running, said Abdulrazak. Then the soldiers began shooting directly at him.
Medee, who was unarmed, was fleeing through a labyrinth of alleyways and passages that crisscross the neighborhood near the mosque.
Bullets smashed into nearby homes and a car. Medee tripped in the darkness over a chunk of concrete and fell to the ground. The soldiers quickly caught up to him and began kicking and stomping on his legs, hands and wrists.
Then his hands were bound and he was hauled off to an army camp.
Local residents say the Thai army reacted with a heavy hand.
“We feel very upset and vengeful that this boy is being framed,” said Jehming Jehming, a 43-year-old Tanyongpao resident whose house, front wall and car were peppered with bullets that night.
“This place has never had any incidents like the killing of Buddhists or soldiers or police,” he said. “We want to cooperate with the soldiers, but that night it was like they came here to kill because they shot at anything that moved.”
“I said to one of the soldiers ‘You shot my home. You tried to kill my family. If I want to kill your soldiers, how will you feel?’” said Jehming.
“In many of the villages considered to be red zones – the most sensitive areas – we can find many cases where [soldiers] are breaching the rights of people,” said Srisompob. “That is a very serious problem in terms of finding a solution here.”
If these incidents continue, it “will be a disaster for the military”, he said.
“Before my son was killed we thought that the soldiers were here to protect the village and the people. We don’t believe that any more,” said Yaenass-ah. “We don’t trust them any more.”
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