Four years ago on this day, more than 1,000 angry Malay Muslims protested in front of the police station in the southern border town of Tak Bai. They were demanding the release of six village defence volunteers suspected of giving their government issued shotguns to the insurgents.
As with other detainees in this restive region where an ongoing insurgency has ripped apart the community and pitted the security forces against the local community, the police did not have much evidence against the accused.
Yet to have let them go would have been an admission of defeat, and that was unacceptable to security forces bent on teaching the local Malays some manners.
And so by the afternoon the security forces thought enough was enough. They fired blanks into the air and live bullets at the unarmed crowd to break up the protest. Hundreds were rounded up, and one by one they were stacked one on top of the other in the back of military transport vehicles.
It has never been made clear why such an unsound method was used. Shortage of transport vehicles, perhaps, or was it just a way of teaching these boys and men the consequence of disobedience?
Whatever the reason behind the action by government security officials, one thing that stands out to keen observers is that pig merchants in Thailand treat their animals in a more humane way than Thai officials treated the Tak Bai demonstrators. The pigs are separated by metal cages as they are transported to the slaughterhouses.
By the time the military transport trucks reached the military camp in Pattani, at least 78 men had died of suffocation. Officials said the young men had died because they were fasting. It all happened during the holy month of Ramadan.
In spite of the overwhelming evidence, no one has been prosecuted for the death of the Tak Bai victims, not to mention the six victims who were gunned down at close range at the demonstration site.
Four years later, human rights activists and civil society continue with their demands for justice, but to no avail. Besides Tak Bai, there are scores, if not hundreds, of other cases that underline the questionable practices of state officials.
Earlier this year a Narathiwat cleric, Imam Yapa Kaseng, was beaten to death in front of his two sons while in the custody of a military task force. Army chief General Anupong Paochinda vowed to get to the bottom of the case, but so far nothing.
Certain Western countries have quietly expressed concern that the failure to right the wrong in Yapa’s case could affect Thailand’s international standing, as well as bilateral ties with their respective governments.
But the community and civil society continue to come together, keeping hopes alive, believing that somehow justice will prevail for some of these victims.
Seminars to discuss how far Thailand has come since the tragic events are being held in Thammasat University today. College and university students from this restive region are commemorating the tragic events by sponsoring a public event, including a mass prayer for a peaceful future, at the Yala Central Mosque.
Also in Yala today, civil society is sponsoring a donation drive to collect legal fees for a civil suit against the state on behalf of Asahari Samaae, a local resident who was detained in July 2007 and never heard of since.
The Tak Bai anniversary comes amid a growing demand for justice over the October 7 bloodshed, when police fired teargas canisters into an antigovernment crowd in front of Parliament. Two died, and hundreds were injured. A few lost limbs.
Yet sadly, we don’t see the same demand for justice for the Tak Bai victims. Thailand’s Malayspeaking South is like a bastard child of the state, said an NGO worker in the region: the same rules just don’t apply. And we wonder why the separatists are questioning the legitimacy of the Thai state in the Malay historical homeland they call Patani.