Bangkok Post 23 Nov 2008
Southern disappearance: A case study
While there is a well-watched record of enforced disappearance in Thailand, focusing more recently on the nation’s South, Mayateh’s is the first from the three southernmost provinces in which justice has been sought from the courts
By Pattarin P Lee
Before June 24, 2007, Mayateh Maranoh was a school caretaker in Yala’s Bannang Sata district. He lived with his wife and two children in a small A-frame house, surrounded by palm trees and, at the time, Paramilitary Unit 41, which was conducting a survey of villagers in the area.
The unit had set up its camp behind Mayateh’s home, and according to the testimony of one Unit 41 junior officer, the caretaker was quite neighbourly, and provided water for the unit’s cooking and consumption.
At the time, Bannang Sata – categorised a “red zone” in Thailand’s deep South – was especially plagued by the insurgency. Security forces were attacked and schools burned. There had been a couple of arson attacks on Banglang school, where Mayateh worked.
In response to the mounting violence, the region’s security forces initiated a week-long joint operation, code-named the “Bannang Sata Plan”, intended to “separate the fish from the water” and which, by week’s end (June 28), had resulted in the arrest and detention of 384 men under the Martial Law and Emergency Decree.
Although Mayateh was not one of the 384 detainees, he was visited by security officials that week. A contingent of 25 or so paramilitary members arrived in four or five cars at his home on June 24. They said they wanted to question him about the fire at the school and, without presenting a warrant, they took Mayateh, his mobile phone, his registered weapon and his car to Bannangsta Intacharat school, where the paramilitary unit was headquartered. They didn’t tell Mayateh’s wife where they were taking him, why they were taking him or when he’d be back. They just left, and he has still not returned home.ROLE PLAY OR FOUL PLAY? According to the testimony of paramilitary officers involved in the arrest, it was merely a ruse, a “role-play arrest”, to protect
Mayateh from neighbours or village insurgents who would likely harm him if they learned of his cooperation with authorities.
According to officers, Mayateh was invited to give information and he went to the Bannangsta Intacharat school to do so voluntarily. Some witnesses say he drove himself. Although stories vary and have evolved (by some reports Mayateh left the school and returned later in the day), Mayateh is said to have met with the Unit 41 commander, Colonel Tim Ruanto, at the school for about an hour that evening, where he shared information about insurgency members and sympathisers and also expressed concern about his own safety. Even so, the meeting was said to have been friendly, conducted with tea under a tree in the school’s courtyard.
The meeting ended around 7 pm, at which point Mayateh was said to have requested permission to leave and to have driven away in his car.
This is the story that has emerged in the three court hearings held since August this year, a result of petitions from Mayateh’s wife, with the help of human rights groups, to the provincial court in Yala to conduct an inquiry into the whereabouts of her husband.
Because Thailand has no laws which specifically address disappearances, Mayateh’s case was submitted to the Yala provincial court under Article 90 of the Criminal Code, which addresses habeas corpus and cases of unlawful detention. This Thursday, November 27, the court will bring down its verdict.
In reaching its decision, the court will be challenged by the scant evidence that comes with the case. There is no record _ although some say one once existed _ of Mayateh coming or going from the paramilitary headquarters, nor any formal documentation regarding any ”role playing arrest” or his invited conversation with the camp commander.
There is no evidence, no forensic samples, and no body. Although Mayateh’s wife filed a missing persons report with the local police several weeks after his disappeared, there has been no progress _ and perhaps no efforts made _ in any official investigation. This is typical of such cases in the South.
The case was later submitted to the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), which has also taken on the disappearance in Bangkok of lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit and a few others. The DSI rejected Mayateh’s case, however, on the grounds that it was not a special case.
With no real hard evidence, the judges have only the conflicting accounts of six witnesses _ a wife, a son, the district governor, and three paramilitary officials _ to base their decision on Thursday. There are a few suspicious inconsistencies in the stories_particularly, in the testimony of the three paramilitary officers.
There are also the irregularities and curiosities in the officials’ actions. Neither a detainee nor an informant for the security forces, Mayateh was a uniquely categorised and completely undocumented ”invitee” to the paramilitary headquarters.
The human rights lawyers working on the case point out the further oddity that Mayateh, who had supposedly just provided valuable intelligence and expressed such feelings of insecurity that the authorities had staged his arrest, was allowed to leave the school without protection or any sort of checking up in the following days.
The Unit 41 commander said he learned of Mayateh’s disappearance in July, when he received a letter requesting information about him from the district governor. Mayateh’s family now receives periodic housecalls and 4,500 baht payments from the same officer who first took Mayateh away.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University who specialises in security and other issues in the South, pointed out more obstacles to finding the truth.
”It’s difficult. There are conflicting stories. There have been a number of cases where these suspects run to Malaysia, abandoning their wife and family, having been scared by questioning. Other times, individuals may have conflicts with local people who will take advantage of the fact that they were just released from police questioning,” said Prof Panitan.
Even if that’s the case, he added, the fact that officials were not following established protocol is problematic. ”The military did not follow the established regulations. They are supposed to have a court order to pick up people they question. They should have followed proper procedure, and they must explain this in court.”
NO LEGAL MECHANISM
Although the circumstances of Mayateh’s case are unique, the general story is not. Nine cases of disappearance in southern Thailand were recorded and reported by human rights groups to the UN Working Group of Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) in 2007. These are added to the 39 previous unresolved cases _ mostly from the 1992 political crackdown in Bangkok when troops fired on protesters calling for Gen Suchinda Krapayoon to step down as prime minister _ reported from Thailand and monitored by the WGEID.
Meanwhile, an activist with Working Group on Justice for Peace (WGJP), a human rights group that documents disappearances and rights abuses in the South, says the organisation has recorded around 30 cases of disappearance in the region since 2002. While many of these were roadside abductions connected to the war on drugs, the activist says there are also a number of recent cases like Mayateh’s, in which the disappeared were last seen in the custody of state officials.
It is speculated by human rights workers that most of the disappeared are victims of interrogations that have gone too far. Cases of torture in military detention and interrogation facilities in the South have also been documented (there are 50 this year), perhaps most alarmingly in the case of Imam Yapa Koseng, who died while in military custody in February of this year. His body was badly beaten and burned. A post mortem inquest is under way in the case and a verdict will be announced on Dec 25.
While there is this well-watched record of enforced disappearance in Thailand, focusing more recently on the nation’s South, Mayateh’s case is the first from the three southernmost provinces in which justice has been sought from the courts.
”There is no legal mechanism for families of the disappeared,” says Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, a human rights lawyer with the Cross Cultural Foundation, which is assisting Mayateh’s wife with the case.
The WGJP activist adds: ”There have been no prosecutions, investigations even, in these cases. No one has tried to take other cases to court. The biggest problem is no evidence. There has been no investigation in most cases. Even if the family files a complaint, it’s not investigated.”
The activist says in Mayateh’s case ”it’s impossible to judge what the verdict will be”, although she worries that if the verdict does not fall in favour of Mayateh’s family, ”other victims’ families will be even more reluctant to pursue their cases. It definitely increases the risk to the family, and if there’s no hope, there’s no reason to even try.”
”The courts are very weak. They’re not independent. Lawyers don’t want to take these cases and witnesses don’t want to testify. There’s very weak evidence collection and investigation techniques. This is one of the main reasons people have such little faith in them.”
Prof Panitan agrees: ”People don’t feel there is justice. The courts will normally rule on clear evidence only.”
He stresses the need for improved investigation capabilities and forensic science in the South, and says that while lack of evidence makes it difficult to deliver justice, at the very least officials should be punished for breaking established regulations in cases like Mayateh’s. He concedes these are likely to be only mild measures of discipline, like the movement of an officer to a different post.
ENDING THE CULTURE OF IMPUNITY
The lack of justice served in cases like the Oct 25, 2004, Tak Bai incident, the mounting reports of torture (WGJP has documented 50 this year) and unlawful detention, and the general ”culture of impunity” that has surrounded security officials in the South exacerbate this lack of public trust in state officials. Human rights workers are especially critical of detention procedures, which they allege are rarely carried out according to the law.
The WGJP activist claims most people are arrested without warrants and detained under the Martial Law and Emergency Decree for a period of 37 days. For the first few days they are not allowed family visits, and for the entirety they are not allowed access to a lawyer. Although their detention has to be extended every seven days, the authorities are rarely required to provide a reason and the detainee does not have to appear in court, making it impossible for the court to detect possible cases of torture. Even if charges are not brought against the detainee in this period, many of them are just re-arrested ”whenever there’s a need to arrest someone”, according to the activist.
”People are trusting the state less and less. They’re very scared of state officers. Operations are very traumatic for the villagers. The government campaign to win over the hearts and minds of people here has clearly not worked,” the activist said.
While Prof Panitan maintains that arrests are made with warrants and many officials act lawfully, he said Mayateh’s case ”shows there is a long way to go in the need to control agencies and make sure operations are conducted lawfully. It’s good that these human rights groups are active. Whether they are right or wrong, they serve as a check on officials and will ultimately make operations more transparent.”
In addition to the vigilance of rights groups, Prof Panitan believes Thailand’s newly established security laws and structures will help to reduce human rights abuses in the South. He helped to develop the new Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) structure and draft the Internal Security Act, which he points out saw nine refinements, many of which were made to accommodate civil and human rights groups.
He says the new Isoc structure, in which civilians oversee security forces (the prime minister is the director, and leaders of security forces wield the same power as other governmental officials) is extremely new for Thailand, and a big step towards checking and regulating the activities of the military. Security structures will also become more integrated, which he says will provide better checks on the paramilitary groups that operate in the South, which are considered to be the most likely of regional security forces to lack training and regard for human rights.
He adds that the Internal Security Act_which he predicts will take the place of the Martial Law and Emergency Decree in the South soon _ provides for a monitoring committee of human rights officials that should have more power to challenge rights abuses.
Prof Panitan concedes that these laws and agencies are new, and the transition will take both time and a more concerted effort to institutionalise the changes. Crucial to this will be the creation of a new manual documenting the rules. He also adds that the establishment of a justice centre, equipped to handle cases of human rights abuses, is badly needed in the South.
Human rights workers are less confident than the professor that meaningful change is coming to security procedures in the South via the new law.
”From what I see, it will only make it harder to break down the culture of impunity here. The military is given excessive power with the Internal Security Act and there are very few checks and balances on it,” said the WGJP activist.
At the same time, the activist conceded that the government has begun to get serious about the issue of enforced disappearance, and among other things has begun responding to communication from the WGEID and expressed willingness to ratify the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearance. A study group is reportedly considering whether Thailand can actually abide by the convention.
For the families of the disappeared, this would undoubtedly offer a small bit of hope _ if not for the return of their loved ones then at least for justice.