A soldier mans one of the numerous military checkpoints in Pattani province. (Photo by Abby Seiff)
Abdullah* has a simple piece of advice for those arrested in Thailand's deep South: "confess."
"In my opinion, 99 percent will be tortured. So from my experience, it's better to just say 'yes' and the torture will be less," he explained in an interview last month.
On Nov. 9, the military showed up at Abdullah's house and said someone had reported him to be an insurgent. They took him to Pattani province's notorious Inkayuth military camp — a sprawling, fortresslike compound with a prison, barracks, hospital and base. As soon as he arrived, the beatings began. Soldiers stripped him naked, punching him with cloth wrapped around their hands to lessen the bruising. They interrogated him for hours straight and withheld food and water.
"They were trying to get me to say I was involved in cases they wanted to solve. A bomb case in Hat Yai, one in Samui and one at the border," he said. Weakened and exhausted, Abdullah quickly decided that a false confession might be the fastest way to make the abuse stop.
"After I said "yes," the military said, 'do you accept these three crimes?' I said yes and the torture stopped."
In the 12 years since a smoldering separatist movement reignited in Thailand's three southernmost provinces — Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala — more than 6,500 people have been killed and nearly 12,000 wounded. Today, an estimated 65,000 security forces are posted to the predominantly ethnic Malay-Muslim area, which remains in a state of perpetual martial law.
With little success in hunting down the insurgents, successive regimes have taken a broad strokes approach. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people have been arrested under special laws that allow for a month of detention without charge. People have been detained because they have the same last name as a known insurgent, they have been detained in the hope of pressuring a relative to come out of hiding, they have been detained because they come from a particular village or particular family. And with scant evidence to support their arrests, torture in the hopes of forcing a confession is rife.
"Last year, we had 33 cases... We learn about them only when the victim comes to us; the number is certainly higher, said Kaosat Ali-mamah, a paralegal at the Muslim Attorney Center.
Ali-mamah researches and compiles data on torture cases. In February, the Muslim Attorney Center released its annual report detailing prevalence and methods of torture in custody. Nearly everyone they interviewed said they had been hit, slapped or beaten — either with hands or batons. Several had been stripped, one was made to drink his own urine, two were water-boarded. Electrocution was common, as was "torture of the reproductive organ." Some were told their families would be hurt if they didn't confess.
And of that vast majority hoarded into custody and brutalized each year, only the slightest fraction are ever charged and tried.
"If the number of people arrested is, lets say, 10,000 — the number people that they actually have enough evidence to indict is a fraction of that. And the number of people who are actually convicted is in the hundreds. So it really is shocking," said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C., who focuses on Thailand's deep South.
In Abdullah's case, the military released him after a month. He believes his "confession" placed him on a watch list, but it would appear there was far from enough evidence to even lay charges. Getting back to life as it was, however, has proven impossible. There are regular visits from police and military and there are more physical remnants of his time in custody.
"Before, I used to do three or four hours of graphic design without any problem, now I have headaches after an hour," said Abdullah, who runs a small T-shirt printing business.
"I'm worried about my children … I'm worried that if the military thinks I'm involved in something again, maybe they will arrest, or shoot, or disappear me or my family."
At night, Abdullah has trouble sleeping. In the daytime, his stomach twists into knots.
"I'm really scared. Even to my wife, I couldn't tell all the details [of the torture.] Even to the organization. I just told them 50 percent."
Dozens detained at Pattani's Inkayuth Military Camp have reported being abused and even tortured in custody. (Photo by Abby Seiff)
In January, the Cross Cultural Foundation and Pattani Human Rights Organization released its own report on "Torture and ill-treatment in the deep South."
"Acts of torture in southern border provinces are systematic. This refers to acts of widespread, intended and regular torture," the report notes. Apart from in-depth interviews of those tortured in detention, the report details the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety seen among their anonymous victims.
In response to the 50-page report, the government brushed off the findings with a 600-word statement. The reporting was outdated, said Maj. Gen. Banpot Poonpien, spokesman for the Internal Security Operations Command, and written solely to solicit funding from abroad.
"Until now, security agencies have conducted training every year to raise awareness among security forces and all attempts have been made to prevent any act that would become a problem from a human rights perspective," he said.
*Name has been changed to protect the security of the interviewee