Activists in Thai Deep South suspected of clandestine activities

Mariyam Ahmad and Nontarat Phaicharoen
Pattani, Thailand, and Bangkok
Activists in Thai Deep South suspected of clandestine activities Deep South activists line up outside Sai Buri Police Station in Pattani province, southern Thailand, to hear details of a complaint against them, Jan. 9, 2024.

Nine activists in the Thai Deep South appeared at a local police station on Tuesday to respond to a complaint filed last week citing involvement in clandestine activities and the alleged display of BRN insurgent flags at their recent gatherings.

Their appearance at the station in Pattani province came after more than 30 human rights groups and NGOs in the southern border region cited the case in an open letter to the United Nations where they alleged that Thai police and security services have been harassing civil society groups for holding public meetings.

In their letter, the groups called on the U.N. to investigate an alleged free-speech violation by Thai security officials against the nine.

“This type of prosecution shows the intention of the authorities to stop activities. It will make people in the area feel pressured. They will not be able to express themselves,” said Muhammadladee Dengni, one of the nine named in the complaint.

The accusations stem from participation in the 2021 Hari Raya celebration – a two-day nationwide Muslim holiday – and were filed under Article 116 of the Criminal Code. 

The Deep South, a predominantly Muslim Malay and heavily militarized region along the Thai-Malaysia border, is home to a decades-old separatist insurgency. 

“The summonses were issued in response to activities on May 4 and 10, 2022, that included covert activities and the display of BRN flags. The activities also included the reading of a poem that was interpreted as a call to action for young people to sacrifice their lives for the Melayu nation, with the ultimate goal of secession, which is in violation of the Thai Constitution,” Col. Kiattisak Neewong, a spokesman for the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), told BenarNews. 

Barisan Nasional Revolusi (BRN), the largest and most powerful of the insurgents groups and factions in the region, has been taking part in Malaysia-brokered peace talks with the Thai government in recent years but there have been no breakthroughs.  

After heading to the Sai Buri police station in Pattani, Muhammadaladee expressed surprise about the complaint, noting that prior to the event, he and others had discussions with ISOC officials and had received permission to hold the gathering.

On Tuesday, Muhammadaladee and the others, who were dressed in traditional Malay Muslim garb, symbolically taped their mouths shut and held a sign saying “we are Melayu,” indicating their view that the complaint was an attempt to silence them. 

“The peace talks could be disrupted again. It’s been over 10 years, and everyone is trying to make progress, but incidents like this make us fear, it will all come to a halt again,” Muhammadaladee said.

Activists wear tape across their mouths as they and supporters walk to the Sai Buri Police Station in Pattani province, southern Thailand, to hear a complaint against them, Jan. 9, 2024. [BenarNews]

Meanwhile, authorities said they planned to schedule a meeting with the activists to clarify the complaint against them. The activists said they plan to gather evidence, including testimonials from academics specializing in Deep South issues, to contest the case.

Army commander: ‘Not intended to silence dissent’

The open letter to the United Nations, signed by 31 organizations, dated Jan. 6 and posted on Facebook on Monday, requested an investigation into the summonses issued by Thai police. 

“We … urge your agency to investigate the violation of rights in the peaceful assembly and activities of Malay-Muslim activists in Thailand,” the letter read.

“[T]he government’s actions in prosecuting criminal charges related to security that obstruct freedom of assembly against activists in conflict areas, in a manner that appears to be harassment leading to criminal charges, are in complete contradiction with the United Nations’ approach to protecting and safeguarding human rights and the role and responsibilities of the Human Rights Council.”

U.N. officials in Thailand did not immediately respond to a BenarNews request for comment on the letter.

One of the signees, the Cross-Cultural Foundation, noted that since 2017, more than 40 activists in the southern border provinces had been summoned by the police to face criminal charges. In some cases, the plaintiff filing the complaint has been identified as Maj. Gen. Santi Sakuntanak, the army’s commander in the Deep South.

“Law enforcement operations adhere strictly to legal codes,” Santi said in response. “The accused individuals have every opportunity to defend themselves in court and demonstrate their innocence. 

“We uphold the principles of cultural diversity and promote freedom of expression within the confines of the law. However, advocating for separatism or independence unequivocally violates the Thai Constitution and cannot be tolerated. Rest assured, these legal proceedings are not intended to silence dissent, but to uphold the rule of law.”

Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross-Cultural Foundation, expressed concern about the human rights situation in the southern border provinces despite the change of government from one led by former junta chief Prayuth Chan-o-cha to one led by Srettha Thavisin.

The Deep South encompasses Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala provinces and four districts of Songkhla province.

“The government should stop prosecuting citizens as it destroys the peaceful resolution of conflicts. The government should push for fair legal processes,” Pornpen told BenarNews.

“Currently, the use of violence and arms has almost ceased, possibly because they think they have representatives in the parliament. However, the peaceful expression of rights, which is guaranteed by the constitution, is being obstructed. The government should stop these practices.”


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.