Cheakwae Naesa, 58, holds up a photograph of his son, Sulaiman Naesa, who died aged 25 in military custody, in front of his wife Maetsoh Naesa, 45, at their home in Pattani. The last time Sulaiman Naesa’s parents saw their son alive was when soldiers took him away for questioning on suspicion of being involved in a raging insurgency in Thailand’s deep south.
The last time Sulaiman Naesa’s parents saw their son alive was when soldiers took him away for questioning on suspicion of being involved in a raging insurgency in Thailand’s deep south. “After one week in detention he was brought back dead,” said his mother, Maetsoh Naesa. The military told them the 25-year-old construction worker hanged himself in his room on May 30 at the army base where he was being held in Pattani, one of several troubled Muslim-majority provinces near the Malaysian border. His family believes he was tortured, possibly to death.
Photographs released by the Young Muslim Association of Thailand of Sulaiman’s body at the base appear to show signs of mistreatment: wounds to his back and neck, blood dripping from his genitals, and black marks on his body. It was the first death in custody in the region since 2008, when a Muslim cleric, Imam Yapa Kaseng, died after beatings by soldiers during interrogation in neighbouring Narathiwat province, a subsequent inquest ruled.
Just a few hundred kilometres (miles) south of golden beaches where foreign tourists frolic in the sun, a six-year-old conflict has left more than 4,100 people dead, including many civilians, though few make international headlines. Struggling to quell the unrest, the authorities have imposed emergency rule in the area for nearly five years, allowing the army to detain suspects for questioning without charge.
The insurgent attacks, led by a shadowy mix of Islamist and separatist militants, have targeted both Buddhists and Muslims with shootings, bombings and gruesome killings such as beheadings and crucifixions. The military says it is striving to win hearts and minds in the region, but alleged abuses by security forces have left a feeling of deep mistrust. “We are powerless to fight the authorities,” Sulaiman’s mother told AFP at her home in rural Kadunong in Pattani’s Sai Buri district.
“Yes, of course we need justice — our son died because of the army.” The army told Sulaiman’s parents that he was involved in more than a dozen bomb or gun attacks. But they said it is hard to believe their son was an insurgent, describing him as “just a normal man” who did not leave home often except to work, visit friends or go fishing.
After his death the authorities offered them a return trip to Mecca, payment of the funeral costs and a couple of sacks of rice and a food hamper as compensation for their son’s death. The food sits untouched in their home and they declined the offer to join other Muslim pilgrims on the annual hajj to Saudi Arabia.
The authorities deny torture is used at the interrogation centre where Sulaiman died after being taken in for questioning without charge. “He hanged himself with a towel inside his room,” said Colonel Banphot Poonpien, a regional army spokesman. “No torture techniques or equipment are used during interrogation.”
Human rights groups are calling for the closure of the interrogation centre, arguing that the army lacks training and experience in civilian law enforcement. They say abuses on both sides in the conflict have created a vicious circle of violence, with numerous complaints of alleged torture including beatings, electric shocks and strangulation of suspects in military custody.
“In the south there is a cycle of violence and impunity coming from both sides,” said Sunai Phasuk of New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Both insurgents and security forces are feeding into this cycle.” The organisation says no member of the security forces has been criminally prosecuted for alleged abuses in the region, including the case of the imam and the deaths of more than 80 Muslim protesters in 2004, most of whom suffocated after being left piled on top of each other in army trucks for hours.
The southern region was once an autonomous Malay sultanate until Buddhist Thailand annexed it a century ago, provoking decades of tension that flared up into the current insurgency in January 2004. The area is less prosperous than central Thailand, and many of its inhabitants complain there is a disregard for their Malay ethnic identity and language, Yawi.
There is a heavy military presence and checkpoints dot the roads that cut through a region of rubber plantations, jungle and rural villages whose tranquility is punctuated by near-daily bomb or gun attacks. According to rights groups, insurgents appear to have stepped up their attacks in retaliation for Sulaiman’s death.
Last week nine people, including six military personnel, were killed in two days of bomb and shooting attacks. Sulaiman’s parents say they are not seeking revenge for their son’s death, but do not want others to suffer the same fate. “We hope it will be the last case and it won’t happen to anyone else who is arrested by the army in the future,” said his father, Cheakwae Naesa