Human rights under a situation of heightened unrest [2]: academics’ opinions on human rights and security

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Deep South Watch


          The Project of Public Services of the Southern Provinces held a seminar titled Human rights during an abnormal situation at the CS Pattani Hotel in Pattani, Thailand.  The Deep South Watch documented this event and recorded the opinions of two academics who gave presentations.

          Human rights and security are interdependent and interrelated issues for human life.  While the goal of security is to protect people’s lives and property, human rights is a significant issue that can contribute to people’s well-being.  But what exactly is the boundary between the two?  And importantly, in the context of the conflict and violence in Thailand’s southern border provinces, why have neither human rights nor security been fully developed?

          In addressing these questions, two political scientists – Thanet Apornsuwan and Chidchanok Rahimmulla – were asked to comment on issues concerning human rights and security in the southern border provinces, most particularly in terms of the ways in which both of these two important aspects of human life can be improved in this troubled region.


“The objective of establishing human rights is to foster what democracy promises to the people: majority rule. Hence, if we are going to talk about promoting human rights, what we must do is give power to the majority.”

Associate Professor Thanet Apornsuwan
Director of South East Asian Studies, Faculty of Arts, Thammasat University

          I was trying to think of what an abnormal situation is, most especially in terms of a political system. Based on my understanding, a normal state – that is a normal government -- is when a government, or any kind of system for that matter, operates in the same way that an engine generates itself and continues once it is started. A driver (or in the case of a government, a politician) then just follows and operates its system.

          If such a system could be understood as a normal state, then an abnormal state would be its opposite.  For an abnormal state, a government would not operate in the manner in which it should.  Instead, an outside tool would be used keep it in operation.  But this outside tool would operate in a way that interferes with what could be considered a normal mode of operation.  In other words, this kind of abnormal government would not operate in accordance with the jurisdiction in which a state must have to effectively operate.  Under such abnormal circumstances, other countries would most likely not accept the existence of this government. Moreover, this abnormal government’s legal system would not have been written according to the will of the majority, further negating its credibility in the eyes of other countries.

          If a state experiences an abnormal situation, then the society’s rules and laws will be affected.  People in contemporary states with relatively effective governments can live together somewhat peacefully because they have a general understanding of one another as well as the law.  Based on my experience, I have noticed that when people are relatively content and happy they generally understand and tolerate others.

          This may not necessarily mean that there is persistent conflict in traditional or less developed states.  But in terms of the problem of human rights problem in traditional states, those individuals or groups in power can exercise authority in ways that may indeed undermine human rights.  In some cases, this may be done to acquire material benefits.  In others it may be done to simply maintain political power. 

          One reason why power holders in traditional states may be able to violate human rights is because the majority of the population cannot rely on a democratic system.  Nevertheless, it is still possible (though not necessarily likely) that even the majority of the population can receive some benefits so long as the ruler or rulers are fair and benevolent.

          However, if a country with a traditional form of governance makes the transition to democracy, ideas and attitudes also change.  Under a democratic system of governance, power belongs to the majority of the people, which stands in sharp contrast with many traditional, pre-modern states when power rests in the hands of a single ruler or powerful elite.  People in democratic states expect to have a larger role in the political arena. 

          But when a traditional, pre-modern state is making a transition to a contemporary form of democratic governance, many people in its territory are accustomed to the traditional culture and political authority.  Under these circumstances, the transition to democracy can be difficult and protracted, in large part because the traditional rulers do not want to have their power undermined by new challengers such as the majority.

          Hence, what some people are asking for at the moment in Thailand is seen as a challenge to the power of the traditional ruling elite who have historically governed the country. 

          However, if one takes a look at the United States, one can notice significant contrasts with Thailand.  In the United States, the kind of a traditional political power structure that has been present in Thailand has never existed ever since the United State’s first and only constitution was promulgated more than 200 years ago.  To be sure, the country has had inequality, but the United States has not had such sharp class divisions by comparison. This probably has resulted in part from the country’s early immigrants, who wished for sovereignty.

          Now, for more than 200 years, when social or political problems occur in the United States, resolutions are based on the premise that there is relative equality in the distribution of power -- at least in terms of equal rights -- among the people.  Each individual also has the right to negotiate with others, including the government. Under this kind of system, every person receives at least some benefits. However, this kind of system that exists in the United States is difficult to replicate in other countries that have strikingly different historical backgrounds.

          Some people – particularly those who tend to diminish the importance of human rights -- consider human rights to be almost exclusively about making demands. If we take a look back in history, however, there have always been some forms of human rights in societies, typically consisting of some form of negotiation between common, ordinary people and those people in power. Granted, the historical record does indeed show that democratic governments have far outperformed traditional, even authoritarian, governments when it comes to human rights.  But even under slavery in Thailand, slaves received some protection (and thus receive security) from their owners. Under some circumstances, if they were unhappy with their owners, slaves had the right to live with another owner. In cases such as this, once an owner realized that his slaves moved in with another owner because the slaves did not receive whatever they wanted from the previous owner, a clever owner would then provide incentives for the slave to return.

          But in today’s world, the protection of basic human rights is absolutely crucial to further developing democracy.  Its existence under the rule of law allows for people to have the freedom of expression, facilitating a more civil and democratic society.  In doing so, it diminishes the possibilities of aggression, combats crime and corruption, and prevents violent conflict.

          In Thailand’s southern border provinces that have been struck by violent conflict over the past five years, there have been many examples that demonstrate there is a lack of protection of basic human rights.  The most prominent forms of human rights violations include arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment of suspects at detention centers. And with the 2005 Emergency Decree, the violation of human rights occurs because this law protects security officers and state officials from criminal and civil liability, as well as from disciplinary measures. 

          In the past, when the Thai state’s security agenda was given significantly more priority than a suspect’s basic humans rights, the state would always prolong the legal process.  Because many citizens are aware of the state’s history of prioritizing its own interests and security over human rights, innocent citizens fear arrests and detention; they believe that if they are arrested they will lose their freedom and basic human rights. 

          Returning to the United States as a point of comparison, when Martin Luther King was a leading civil rights figure fighting for equal rights for African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, the primary tool which allowed him to make his arguments was the law. In fact, King was very knowledgeable about the law because he studied it, but he was arrested merely for demanding equality.  In other words, at that time in the United States, African Americans were treated similarly to the people in Thailand’s southern border provinces.

          When King was in prison, he wrote a letter.  In it he said “delayed justice is a rejection of justice.”  In other words, King was trying to show that that he did not receive justice from the United States government.  This resulted from some abnormal matters occurring in the United State’s political and legal system.

          In terms of how this relates to the situation in Thailand’s southern border provinces, one should know that there have been more than 400 cases brought against the state by villagers.  However, it is important to note that in not one of these cases has a state official been sued.  Although officials have been adamant in insisting that state security forces and officials will receive punishment if it is deserved, it is important to question why no one has sued any officials.  It may possible that there have been cases in which this has occurred, but so far none have been reported.

          According to state officials, they have a good reason to arrest people.  Why? Above all else, officials say it is because they believe there is an insurgent group aiming to separate the land in the far south. Although the Thai government does seem to firmly believe this, I believe the insurgents in the south are more similar to Thailand’s communists from several decades ago.  Surprisingly, however, the communist forces back then were not able to do half of what this new group of insurgents has done in the three southern border provinces over the last five years. The insurgents of today are able to create power by penetrating the village level.  And if they continue to successfully operate this way, they will eventually have the capacity to seize power from the state in the region, creating the foundations for a civil war.  Of course, no one really knows if the situation will deteriorate to this level.

          But if by chance a civil war did indeed occur, the Thai state would declare a state of emergency. Under such circumstances, issues such as human rights would swept aside. This would be one of the last concerns for the state, since it would give priority to putting out the rising power of the insurgency.

          If the government truly does believe in the existence of a cohesive, organized separatist group, I believe that it would be unwilling to establish negotiations with the group. Instead, it would be bent on destroying it. But would the Thai state really be willing to do this?  Would it be totally opposed to negotiation?

          If, for instance, we say that the government would be unwilling to negotiate and would only seek to destroy the group by military force, then this would essentially mean that our country would be returning to a culture and period of time similar to when the Nazis ruled Germany.  The Nazis’ objective was to destroy its enemy.

          I wonder if we need to have the single view that the only way to resolve the conflict in the south is by destroying the enemy. It is possible that the effort to destroy the enemy only strengthens its will to fight violently against the government.

          I think that it is difficult to change or force how people or societies think.  The attempt to change people’s ideas lies at the heart of colonialism.

          Related to the issue of ideas is identity.  Identity has increasingly become a major facet of people’s lives. In the past, say about 100 years or so ago, people did not know or care about identity nearly as much as they do today.  Nowadays, however, people wish to learn more about their identity.  Even my 10-year-old daughter wants to know this kind of information.

          In the context of the contemporary nation-state, we confront numerous new problems related to having a multi-cultural society.  In the past we initially thought in terms of developing a centralized state that operated according to a singular, arbitrary mode of governance, in part because it used to be easier to control people and have peace. However, as the situation has changed, and as it has become clear that there are various ethnicities and nationalisms within a single country, is it possible for a country to have various nationalisms without having violent ethno-nationalist conflict?  In the case of Thailand, must all Thai citizens be Thai nationalists?  Or in the United States, must all American citizens be American nationalists?  Although we all may tend to think this way, is it not possible, for instance, to have both Cambodian and Malay nationalists living relatively peacefully in Thailand?

          I think it is possible.  However, it is unquestionably a major challenge for a state to have multiple ethnicities and nationalities in its territory and, at the same time, for it to have effective governance and peace. Moreover, certain conditions must exist for this to occur.  Perhaps most crucial is the decentralization of political authority.  If power is distributed effectively, and if no ethnic group is favored at the expense of others, I believe that various nationalisms can exist in relative harmony.  This could even benefit a country, including Thailand, as a whole.

          I think that people do not care as much about nationalism as they care about what they can acquire. Nationalism, in fact, is associated with emotion rather than reason. It is a socially constructed belief.  If we think about nationalism, we can see that when one talks about Thai nationalism what follows is the rejection of other nationalisms.

          We have to have the same goal, and it should be to spread democracy and human rights.  If some people believe that power should rests in the hands of a small elite instead of the majority, I think political and social progress will be limited and we will end up discussing these problematic issues for a long time.



“I do admit that special security laws are necessary, but only during specific times and only for the most dangerous areas.  We cannot continue living like this for another 4 or 5 years; otherwise, innocent people will continue to be affected.”

Associate Professor Chidchanok Rahimmulla
Lecturer, Faculty of Political Science, Prince of Songkla University, Pattani Campus

          In an abnormal environment in which a military is in full operation and has special authority, the rights and liberties of people are generally not given full priority and are limited.  To a degree, however, the rights and liberties of people depend on the extent to which the people actually want these rights. The first point I want to talk about is the different rights that various groups in the southern border provinces want.

          The first group of people I would like to discuss is those who do not want a state of emergency.  Broadly speaking, this group does not want the Emergency Decree and martial law because under these laws this group is susceptible to police searches, interrogations, and ill-treatment by state forces. 

          One example I know of took place when a Prince of Songkla University student brought his friend, a former insurgent, to the university.  This former insurgent came with the hopes of landing some form of financial support to allow him to complete his high school studies before moving on to university. 

          Let me preface this story by saying that we can bring up examples such as this one because we do not have to hide instances of human right violations to maintain our image. In fact, human rights violations are very common in the region.

          This young man had been an insurgent in the past, but he later decided that he just wanted to return to a normal life.  However, he had financial difficulties, so I gave him a scholarship to finish high school.  Afterwards he was arrested and held at a detention center for a month.  He was then released because the police did not have evidence to pursue the case. 

          Later, this young man entered Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok, but he was arrested yet again, this time by soldiers. Once again he was accused of being involved with the insurgency in the south.

          After being transferred to the police, the police realized that they could not proceed with charges because their evidence against him was based on the young man’s earlier arrest. Police relied on the notorious blacklist to arrest him even though this man’s name should have been removed because there was no evidence that indicated he was a part of the insurgency. 

          I later had an opportunity to talk to the police about this.  When I asked them about this case, they said that sometimes when they want to track down suspects and complete cases, they use the old blacklist. This is one example why some citizens are negatively impacted by the emergency decree.

          The second group of people I would like to discuss consists of those people who are willing to give up some of their rights in exchange for personal safety and security.  For example, I once interviewed a student whose father had been a sub-district leader under the authority of the Ministry of Interior. This young man tragically witnessed firsthand his father being killed inside his own home.  He was also targeted but managed to escape.  The Ministry of Interior later provided this student with 800,000 baht in compensation for his father’s death. Not only was his father a government official, but his mother also worked for the government at a district office and earned 4,500 baht per month.

          Another example from this second group is a Thai-Buddhist female student who had just graduated from high school. Like many schoolchildren in the region, she was escorted to school every morning by soldiers.  According to her, one day some Thai Buddhist schoolchildren who were being escorted in a pick-up truck were shot. Two of them did not immediately die and were rescued by another driver who drove by.  Although she herself survived, one of the students died directly in front of her.  This young girl I talked with said she traveled to school everyday with soldiers until she entered university. Stories like this are not uncommon, as this is what really happens to many children in the southern border provinces.

          We can see that the two groups of people I mentioned want their rights in different ways. Some people are willing to give up some of their rights and are satisfied to be under the power of the state.  For many, this is because they work for the state.

          However, other people are sometimes negatively impacted by their lack of human rights.  These are people who tend to be treated unfairly and are sometimes suspected of being linked to the insurgency.

          I think a number of people that fall under this group would support an organization that would seek to establish rights for these people.  Currently, however, I do not believe that all people in the south would want an organization such as this.   In other words, some people, or some groups, wish for basic human rights, while others do not need them in the same way.

          The issue of human rights of course relates to the Emergency Decree and martial law.  In 2004 there were several times insurgents attacked and shot people in tea shops, but the police could not even arrest one.  As a result, martial law was announced.  By introducing a curfew, police hoped they could better control insurgents’ activities. Lieutenant General Somret Srirai, Deputy of the Fourth Army Region, said that the law was active because police and soldiers could not protect people all the time. Consequently, people were not allowed to visit tea shops as they normally did after their evening prayer session. However, they complained that the curfew limited their daily life and basic rights.

          There are many examples that show that despite the security threat, people still wish to have basic freedoms that they would have under normal circumstances. Once a student majoring in political science at the university was shot as he was eating noodles with his friends. This young man did not die, and just three days later he returned to the very same noodles shop where he was shot to have another bowl of noodles.  This shows that despite being shot, he still wanted to return to his normal, everyday life. 

          In terms of the problems with martial law, chief among them is instances when state security forces or officials act in an inappropriate manner or, on a more serious level, abuse their authority by using excessive violence.  But in some cases, state forces or officials simply neglect to follow proper procedures, while in other cases authorities make mistakes even though they might usually work according to proper procedures. However, I should add that in general there have been repeated failures by state authorities to act in a manner that respects human rights, such as the case of Imam Yapa.

          Moreover, another important point is that by maintaining a large number of security forces in the region, it is difficult to control soldiers who may be prone to violating human rights. For example, the United States’ “war on terror” has resulted in the violation of human rights by US security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Last month, a US to-ranked military commander asked permission from President Barack Obama to increase the number of troops.  President Obama responded by asking how this would improve the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Although President Obama agreed to send an additional 18,000 soldiers, he said that this would not be a long-term solution to ending the conflict and violence in these countries.  Therefore, in considering the situation in southern Thailand, we should reconsider if there is another way to resolve the conflict and violence that is better than using a large number of military forces.

          Before its dissolution in 2003, there were some 3,000 officials that worked for the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC).  There are currently 70,000 people working under the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC).  Of these, 18,000 people work for the police, 800 people work for the Royal Thai Armed Forces, 35,000 people work for the Royal Thai Army, 3,000 people work for the Royal Thai Navy, 700 people for the Royal Thai Air Force, and 7,000 others work at peace centers. Only 7,000 of the people working within ISOC are civilians. As a result of the staggering number of people working under ISOC, an important point that needs to be examined is whether politicians are guiding and overseeing the military, or whether the military is in fact guiding politics.    

          The issue of maintaining the large number of troops should be debated.  Although the government maintains that the situation is improving, it still argues that more forces are necessary as well as larger budgets.  I question how long it will be necessary to keep troops in the violence-struck region.  Moreover, when will civilians be responsible for overseeing the situation?  And most importantly, when will people in the south be able to live together peacefully?

          People were disappointed after the current government entered office.  The Democrat Party, like its predecessors who ran the government, decided to keep the state of emergency active, citing that there are many problems in the region.  A government report claimed that if troops were taken out of the region, security could worsen and the government would face even more problems.

          The prime minister once said that the government must thoroughly consider the advantages and disadvantages of the state of emergency.  This would seem to suggest that the Democrat-led government believes that there are more advantages than disadvantages to having the Emergency Decree and martial law.  From my perspective, however, I believe that the government maintains these laws because it owes its allegiance to the military and is thus compelled to support it.

          I think that the Emergency Decree and martial law should be limited to specific areas.  If the government removed these two laws, the people in the far south would feel less pressure in so far as they would not always have state authorities monitoring their actions. The government could remove the two laws once it receives intelligence that gives it the confidence to do so. 

          I do admit that special security laws are necessary, but only during specific times and only for the most dangerous areas.  We cannot continue living like this for another 4 or 5 years; otherwise, innocent people will continue to be affected.

          We should push for improvements in state security forces in the region. For instance, the Civilian-Police-Military Task Force is plagued by inefficiency.  By bolstering its efficiency, we can make significant strides in the far south.  Budgets should continue to be allocated for the forces to protect the people.  The more they work together with the people in the region, the more relationships can improve. 

          Furthermore, if military forces are reduced, we have to consider if locals are competent and prepared to work on development and other issues in their place.  We have to question if locals plan to strengthen and develop their communities. 

          The police also have to coordinate more effectively with the military.  Moreover, another problem with the police is that they receive a marginal budget in relation to their responsibilities for the region.

          If we stop relying so heavily on the high number of security forces for the region, are there are other alternatives to stemming the conflict and violence?  Does civil society have a better way out? 

          Whatever is done in the future, any proposal must be based on rationality rather pure emotion.


Plese read..

Human rights during an abnormal situation[1]: contrasting opinions between a human rights activist and an army general