Toleb Sape-ing, a 42-year-old ex-detainee, sits at his brother's house in Yala province, Thailand. (Photo by Will Baxter)
His legs numb, his back bleeding, Toleb Sape-ing had two options: he could crash his motorbike and pretend to be dead, or he could keep driving and end up that way for real.
Toleb, a 42-year-old former security detainee, had just been shot three times and one of the bullets had lodged in his spine. The gunmen’s pick-up truck was close behind, and he knew that if he didn’t at least appear to be dying soon, they’d try to finish the job.
Toleb didn’t hesitate. He tipped his motorbike toward the shoulder of the road and let it go down hard.
“After I wrecked, I stayed completely still,” he said. “The shooters drove by slowly with the window rolled down to check that I was dead. They didn’t fire again.”
Toleb, from Sa-i village in Yala province’s Krong Pinang district, was on his way to nearby Bannang Sata during Ramadan last year when the shooting took place. He says he was lucky to survive, though he is now paralyzed from the waist down.
Since early 2013, six ex-detainees have been shot and killed in the southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, according to the Muslim Attorney Center (MAC), which provides legal assistance to Muslims taken into custody by Thai security forces. Three others, including Toleb, have been targeted but survived attacks.
In most cases, there is very little evidence to indicate who has carried out the shootings. Likewise, rights monitors say that the government bodies tasked with finding those responsible have failed to pursue legitimate investigations.
This, in turn, has led to widespread suspicion in the Muslim community that members of the Thai army, local police and the paramilitary rangers are the perpetrators of the attacks. Rights monitors are also taking notice.
“We don’t have enough evidence to confirm” who is responsible, said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand at Human Rights Watch.
But it is clear that ex-detainees are being “hunted down”, he said.
Izahy Wanying’s husband Ismail Pauhmanis, a former detainee, had been free for nine months when masked men dressed in black came to their home early one morning in June of last year.
Ismail, 51, was an Imam and pondok (Islamic school) teacher in Pulakasing village in Pattani province. He’d also been involved in an anti-drug campaign, which may have drawn the ire of local mafia with links to the security forces or insurgents, his wife said.
On the morning Ismail was killed, two men called out to him from outside their home. “After he opened the door, the strangers shot him,” said Izahy, who had been lying in bed at the time. “A bullet hit me in the stomach, but I didn’t know I had been shot until I tried to stand up.”
“I walked to the door and saw his body lying just outside on the balcony.”
Witnesses saw four men on two motorcycles flee the scene, but no suspects have been arrested. Izahy is careful to use only the phrase “strangers in black” to refer to those she suspects of killing her husband as she fears reprisals.
Still, she wants to stress one point: “My husband was a teacher, not an insurgent.”
Insurgent or not, the victim’s background should not prevent the authorities from seeking justice, according to HRW.
“No matter who the victims were, there should be a serious investigation by the police,” said Sunai. “As long as the authorities fail to investigate those cases seriously there will continue to be growing suspicions among Muslims that ex-detainees, or ex-suspects, are facing extrajudicial execution—and that feeds into radicalization.”
Izahy Wanying, the wife of Imam Ismail Pauhmanis, in Pulakasing village, Pattani province. (Photo by Will Baxter)
Harassment and stigma
“After the first three ex-detainees were killed last year, the rest of us ex-detainees in Yala had a meeting to discuss how to protect ourselves and stay alive,” said Thammarat Alilateh, 32, an ex-detainee and secretary of the Network to Uphold Justice for Peace (JOP), a grassroots organization that gives assistance to Muslims who have been detained for security reasons in South Thailand.
Looking for some kind of government support, Thammarat turned to the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC). The response was not what he had been hoping for.
“After the third killing, I sent a letter to SBPAC to ask for help. Because of that letter, I was detained for about a week,” he said.
The problem, Thammarat says, is that members of the security forces continue to “look down on” and “remain suspicious” of ex-detainees even after their court cases are dismissed.
Abdulqahhar Aweaputeh, a lawyer with MAC, said that after Muslims are released from custody “the police and soldiers still interfere with their lives and still suspect that they are separatists”.
“Any time there is an incident, police and soldiers always first come to the house of the ex-detainees to ask about their whereabouts and what they were doing at the time of the incident,” he said.
Sureeman Sulong, a 31-year-old ex-detainee from Chelong village in Krong Pinang district, said that most former detainees just want to get back to their lives after being released, but can’t due to continued harassment.
“Sometimes, if security officers are always accusing someone of being juwae [the local term for a Muslim insurgent] then he will eventually become juwae after constantly coming into conflict with the security officers,” said Sureeman. “Because they are disturbing his life so much.”
The prevailing view among local rights monitors and Muslims is that rogue members of the security forces are taking matters into their own hands and carrying out extrajudicial killings of ex-detainees when there is insufficient evidence to convict them in a court of law.
Ekkarin Tuansiri, executive director of Patani Forum, said that ex-detainees are “stigmatized” by the security forces and that these attacks against them often occur in response to a soldier or ranger being killed.
“They use violence when their friends have been killed,” he said, adding that instead of following protocol or seeking evidence, the security forces act based on “emotions and gut feelings” in these cases.
“They want to stop the [ex-detainees] because they believe when the ex-detainee dies, then that stops everything—the violence, the killing.”
Any Muslims killed in such operations can easily be written off as “juwae”, he added.
“This is not just about the military being abusive, but [also] the police, administrative officials, [and] defense volunteers—they have all been able to operate with impunity, while for Muslims simply being suspected they could end up being dead or disappeared,” said Sunai.
“This is why the Muslims maintain that they have been treated—and are still being treated—as second-class citizens.”
Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, said that the over-arching powers granted to Thai security forces under martial law are largely to blame for the ongoing harassment and restrictions on “freedom of movement”.
“The military can arrest anyone without any checks and balances from any other agencies,” she said. Martial law allows them “to arrest a person without providing them [with] their basic human rights that we guarantee under our law and constitution. For example, the right to meet with a lawyer, the right to meet with an independent doctor, the right to meet with their families in an appropriate [amount of] time.”
“We also have a lot of reports of torture and ill treatment” of detainees, she said. “It’s like we have Guantanamo in Yala and Pattani and Narathiwat.”
More than 5,500 people have been killed in the southern border provinces during a decade-long low-intensity conflict between separatist Malay Muslims and the Thai government.
The state of martial law has continued to be extended “without any review or any assessment whether it has contributed toward peace or contributed toward more violence”, Pornpen said.
One thing is clear. The military “seems to be very comfortable here in the south”, she added.
But for Toleb, getting comfortable has proved difficult since the shooting.
Now that he’s paralyzed, he can no longer provide for his four children, all under age 18. For the last several months, he’s been spending his days and nights on a raised wooden platform at his brother’s house.
“I can’t do anything; I just sit here all day,” he said. “I pray. I read the Qu’ran. I take pills for the pain.”
*Repeated requests for comment from the military went unanswered.