Today, the cabinet will decide whether to renew the emergency decree for the deep southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat. The decision will show whether the Srettha government has the audacity to change a hitherto hard-line security policy in the region.
Anyone who wishes to see a policy U-turn may be dismayed. A week earlier, Deputy PM Somsak Thepsutin, who oversees the panel considering the security laws, hinted at another three-month extension from Oct 20. Defence Minister Sutin Klungsang endorsed the notion by saying that a public hearing shows local Buddhists and the military want the emergency decree to stay as it affords law enforcers more leeway to make arrests without such a heavy burden of evidence.
Under the decree, officials do not have to seek court warrants or search suspected sites first. The emergency decree permits soldiers to detain suspects at military facilities for up to 37 days for interrogation.
Carte blanche power comes at a cost, though. Over the course of 18 years, reports have flown concerning the use of extra-judicial measures to extract information from suspects, including torture, beatings and even deaths. This has stoked mistrust and animosity against central government and military personnel, as well as firing up threats from militant and insurgent groups.
Two decades of violence have affected the local economy, and security crackdowns prompted by the never-ending emergency decree have left provinces and communities in a state of uncertainty and fear.
Despite standing next to Malaysia, these three southernmost provinces remain steeped in poverty. Such a dismal economic performance is shocking, especially as successive governments have spent large sums on projects to develop these areas. For almost two decades, central governments have approved sums amounting to 25 billion baht per year on security alone. Even though both the government and military have announced the situation has improved, the military keeps sending more personnel to the three deep southern provinces.
Isn’t 18 years more than long enough for the government to have applied a decree intended to befit serious but somewhat more short-lived situations than civil wars or even a global pandemic?
The government should make a bold move and strip the burden of the emergency decree from these people’s lives. Of course, there is violence and attacks, but current legislation is sufficient to handle the situation. The claim that the officials cannot wait for court warrants authorising searches and the arrest of suspected insurgents is misleading. Currently, the Justice Ministry offers 24/7 access to court-granted warrants should law or military agencies require them.
Indeed, keeping the decree in place will only breed more conflict. This kind of legal mechanism is the antithesis of the anti-torture and enforced disappearance law that came into force earlier this year. The anti-torture law requires security officials to record the arrests and searches of all suspects on video while also allowing relatives to visit. A pro-human rights law in the deep South would align with international standards on human rights. If the government and officials can comply, so too will their public image and their relationship with local Muslim communities.
The Srettha government must not squander the chance to change direction in the deep South.
It would be a waste if a civilian government were to squander the chance to begin turning the troubled area back into a source of pride and well-being for those who live there.