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Suspect’s Death in Army Custody Likely to Incite Deep South Insurgency

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
2019-08-27
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The body of Abdullah Esomuso is placed in a truck for transport to a cemetery in Pattani province, southern Thailand, Aug. 25, 2019.
The body of Abdullah Esomuso is placed in a truck for transport to a cemetery in Pattani province, southern Thailand, Aug. 25, 2019.
[Mariyam Ahmad/BenarNews]

On Aug. 25, a suspected insurgent, Abdullah Esomuso, 34, died after being in a coma for 35 days. He was detained under an emergency decree by the Thai army on July 20, after the confession of another suspected insurgent arrested the previous day.

Following his initial interrogation by army rangers, Abdullah was found unconscious in his cell at the Inkayuthaboriharn army base in Pattani on July 21. He slipped into a coma caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain and on July 22 he was sent to the hospital for treatment but never regained consciousness.

On July 22, the Thai Army’s Internal Security Operations Command released a photo of a very healthy-looking Abdullah engaging in a polite discussion with a uniformed Thai Army Ranger, and a plain-clothed official. His family said he was in good physical health and had no pre-existing conditions.

News site Prachatai reported on July 25 that the initial investigation found the closed-circuit TVs in the interrogation room and cells were not working.

Lt. Gen. Pornsak Poonsawat, the 4th Army Region commander, pledged to establish an army fact-finding team, with civil society participation.

“I can confirm that no one is above the law. Everyone involved must be treated fairly and we are ready to scrutinize all actions of government officials,” he said.

The 4th Army spokesman Col. Pramote Prom-in said that if any soldiers were found responsible, they would be punished.

By July 29, the army probe acknowledged that “Doctors recommended that the swollen brain could be caused by ... suffocation or a lack of oxygen to the brain,” but concluded, “There is no evidence that the suspect’s collapse resulted from soldiers’ actions.”

The fact-finding team has not released a formal report, and Abdullah’s family believes it to be engaged in a cover-up. His widow is filing a lawsuit for wrongful death.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has denied any government or military culpability, arguing that Abdullah died of acute pneumonia and septic shock.

Freed on appeal

The Thai army has a long history of torturing detainees and several have died in military custody. Each time it has caused significant blowback and retaliatory attacks against Thai civilians by Malay insurgents.

There have been reports that the Thai army has not prosecuted any of its soldiers for alleged torture or death of inmates in its custody. This is not true, as a handful have been, but all have been freed on appeals.

In most cases, after government pledges to investigate, charges are dropped after public pressure dissipates.

This has long been a problem. The 2005 Emergency Decree, which governs most of the districts in Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat, and parts of Songkhla, gives security forces almost blanket immunity for their actions. This is part of Thai military culture that no one in the leadership seems willing to take on.

The Thai government refuses to acknowledge that public anger over security force impunity is one of the biggest grievances in the Deep South, regardless of whether people support the insurgency or not.

MARA Patani, the umbrella organization of the insurgent groups, has not publicly called for revenge attacks. In an open letter, it condemned his alleged torture as an “inhumane act of cowardice,” and a “severe violation of human rights” that demonstrated a “gross negligence during the interrogation process.”

Thousands of Pattani Muslims attended Abdullah’s funeral, joining his relatives’ demands for justice.

Very little faith

Abdullah’s death comes at an inopportune time for the government for several reasons.

First, the new government – largely illegitimate in the eyes of half of society – is already beset with troubles, including the current oath scandal which the ombudsman found violated the constitution.

The government is a weak multi-party coalition with a razor-thin majority in parliament, with an irate and vociferous opposition determined to keep the heat on the government. Two key opposition parties already jumped on Abdullah’s death as a way to attack the government. Future Forward has called for an autopsy and established a parliamentary committee to investigate.

Second, the largest insurgent group responsible for most of the violence in the south, the National Revolutionary Front (BRN), recently held talks on resuming formal peace talks with the government. The BRN, a key member of MARA Patani, has nonetheless sat out peace talks for almost two years, considering the government insincere.

It is unlikely that the BRN will resume talks. Prawit has rejected out of hand their preconditions calling for prisoner releases. Moreover, the new government is unlikely ever to accede to BRN’s other demands or address their deep-seated grievances, and it will certainly not countenance autonomy.

Recently, an insurgent who had turned himself in as part of a government program was gunned down. There were no claims of responsibility. It could just as easily have been insurgents going after a turn coat, as security forces targeting someone they believed to still be involved in violence. Either way, militants should have very little faith in the system or in their security.

Third, violence in the Deep South really has declined. 2018 saw the lowest levels of violence since 2004, in every category: killings, wounded, IED attacks, shootings, arsons, attacks on hardened security force posts, desecration of corpses, bombings of cell phone towers and power poles.

2019 is on track to be as low. In the first six months of 2019, only 42 people were killed and just over 100 wounded. In 2009, by comparison, 37 people were killed and 67 were wounded a month, on average. But the death of suspects in custody always begets retaliatory violence, especially against Buddhist civilians.

If the insurgents don’t respond – i.e., come to the defense of one of their own, or at least one of the constituents they claim to represent – they look weak.

Within the Deep South, we’ve already seen violence climb the past three months, and there are hints that it will climb further. Mid-August saw a series of six coordinated bombings. Though only nine people were wounded, they demonstrate that the insurgents are still able to pull off simultaneous attacks. A spate of vehicle thefts and high profile robberies portends new attacks, and in late August security forces were able to confiscate a large cache of material for IEDs.

And then there is the question of the Bangkok bombings. On the one hand they were small devices, not meant to kill but simply to embarrass the government, which is not the modus operandi of the insurgents. And yet, the people detained thus far, according to the Thai army, all hail from the south.

The investigation has not been well handled and the public has yet to see sufficient evidence. But very clearly the militants are sending a signal that they can go out of area and escalate the violence should they decide to.

The death of Abdullah Esomuso is likely to reinvigorate the insurgency, closing out its 16th year, with some 7,000 dead.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.

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