She is better known for her cooking, her hospitality and her soft-spoken demeanour in this southern region torn apart by an insurgency. But now, 52- year-old Nima Kaseng is heading for a bigger, more public role – as a crusader for justice. It is a personal crusade for the mother of seven from Rueso, a district set amidst gentle hills and thick rubber plantations in Narathiwat province close to the Thai-Malaysian border, where a shadowy network of Malay-Muslim guerrillas has been active.
Nima’s unprecedented day in court in early September will be the latest step in a journey that began over two years ago. On Mar. 21, 2008, she was informed that her husband, Yapa Kaseng, the imam of the Kortor mosque in Rueso, was found dead in military custody.
Two days earlier, the 56-year-old prayer leader had been arrested by troops attached to the Narathiwat Task Force 39 for allegedly having links to the insurgency. The military had displayed Yapa at a press conference soon after his arrest, accusing him of being an operative of the militants.
Nima and one of her daughters had gotten a glimpse of Yapa in the military compound on Mar. 20. But that was the last time they had seen him alive. An inquest into the imam’s death revealed, in December 2008, that he had been a victim of torture.
A Narathiwat court ruled that a post-mortem had found evidence of bruises and cuts on Yapa’s body and that his ribs had been broken and right lung punctured. But since then, the quest for justice — to have five soldiers and a police officer tried for their alleged role in the imam’s killing — has moved at a glacial pace. So rather than wait, Nima opted for another route and filed criminal charges against Maj Wicha Phuthong, Capt Sirikhet Wanichbamrung, Sgt Maj Rerngnarong Buangam, Sgt Narongrit Harnwet, Sgt Bandit Thinsook and Police Col Thanongsak Wangsupha.
The preliminary hearing for this case at the Narathiwat provincial court is set for Sep. 2. This will mark the first time since the current insurgency exploded over six years ago that a family victimised by the state will seek recourse in the law, in order to go after troops fingered for gross human rights abuses.
“I am doing this because I want justice,” Nima told IPS through a translator. “The perpetrators have to be punished so that others won’t repeat it.” Nima’s journey for justice has placed government officials and the military in an awkward corner, given the public relations drive by the Thai state over the past year to win the hearts and minds of its Malay-Muslim citizens.
“I can assure you that justice will be done,” Narathiwat Governor Thanon Vejkornkanon told IPS. “The culprits, whether they are government officers, the police or the military, will be put through the justice system.” For the new commander of Task Force 39, the task of winning the local residents’ confidence is daunting in the wake of the imam’s killing.
“We need to build back trust,” says Lt Col Jakkrit Srinon, the third officer to head the military unit that controls security in Rueso since Yapa died in military custody. “We now have human rights standards to meet and we can learn from this case.”
But another death in military custody – the first since Yapa’s killing – confirms that the army’s aim to respect the human rights of arrested suspects is not universally followed in Thailand’s insurgency-hit provinces. The latest victim is Sulaiman Naesa, a 25-year-old construction worker, who, the military says, hanged himself in his room at an interrogation centre in a military camp in the southern province of Pattani. His death on May 30 this year came seven days after Sulaiman had been arrested.
But documents shown to IPS by human rights groups challenge the official version of Sulaiman’s death, which was that he had committed suicide using a towel tied around his neck. Sulaiman’s body revealed “signs of torture”, there were “two bleeding wounds on his back” and “two abrasions were found on his neck,” states one document.
The cycle of violence since January 2004 has seen over 4,100 people killed in clashes between heavily armed Thai troops and militants spread across the provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, home to the Malay Muslims that make up the largest minority in predominantly Buddhist Thailand.
The conflict is rooted in history, from the time Siam, as Thailand was then known, annexed the three southern provinces in 1902. Until then, they had been part of the Malay-Muslim kingdom of Pattani. Malay Muslims have, since the annexation, complained of cultural, linguistic and economic marginalisation, giving rise to a separatist struggle in the 1970s. The military’s efforts to quell violence have come under criticism by human rights groups.
They have raised the alarm about the treatment in custody of Malay-Muslim suspects, the worst of which was the death of 78 Muslim protesters in late 2004. They suffocated to death after being packed into military trucks like logs and driven for hours to an army camp. Currently, some 450 Malay-Muslim men are languishing in jails in the south on charges of “terrorism”, out of the more than 4,000 who have been questioned, detained and subsequently released since the fighting began six and a half years ago.
There is an imbalance in the government’s policy in the south, says Pornpen Khonkachonkieat, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, a local human rights group. “There is a lot of power under the emergency law to suppress people, but not enough help for due process to aid the detainees.” (END) – Show quoted text –