The Thai police’s Special Branch has cancelled an order directing universities to provide information on Muslim students for a law enforcement database, the unit’s chief confirmed to BenarNews on Thursday.
Police viewed the order as routine intelligence work but it turned out be controversial with the public, said police Lt. Sarawut Karnpanich, commissioner of the Special Branch Police Bureau, which oversaw the effort that was criticized as singling out Thailand’s small Muslim minority.
“When problems arose, I ordered a cancellation of its implementation,” he said in a phone interview. “We think it’s sensitive.”
Sarawut confirmed the cancellation after a parliamentary committee that held a hearing into the matter on Wednesday said police had agreed to stop asking universities for information on Muslim students. The order required universities to compile a list of Muslim students and their on-campus activities and deliver this information to the police.
On Wednesday, officials from the Special Branch testified before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Law, Justice and Human Rights, along with members of the Muslim Students Federation of Thailand.
“Our young brothers also met us and we told them we didn’t mean to violate human rights. It’s our routine job. I apologized,” Sarawut told BenarNews, referring to the members of the Muslim student federation.
“We did not think this was an issue. It shouldn’t have been an issue, but the matter was exaggerated,” he said.
Rangsiman Rome, a spokesman for the committee, said it had questioned Special Branch officials on whether the order discriminated against Muslim students.
“We tried questioning them about, first, the reason behind this, and second, why focus on Muslims. We sought such information as well as whether or not they monitored Christians and Buddhists,” Rangsiman told BenarNews on Thursday.
“The [Special Branch] could not say much more because, they said, their work concerned security matters, although we expected to learn some more,” he said.
Rangsiman, an MP with the opposition Future Forward Party, is a former student activist who helped lead anti-junta protests in the streets of Bangkok in recent years that led up to Thailand’s 2019 general election.
On Thursday, the Muslim Students Federation posted a message on its Facebook page calling on police to issue a formal apology and to make a public announcement about the cancelled order.
“The [federation] demands that the Special Branch deliver written notification about the cancellation [of the order] to universities ... and we call on the Special Branch to show responsibility by offering an apology about its mistake,” the federation said.
‘A good thing’
The police order was widely criticized by human rights advocacy groups and the Sheikhul Islam, the top Muslim leader in the country, who last week called on police to cancel the order.
“We don’t mean to have special privileges but equality and justice, which we take it as a key factor for harmony and true security,” Wisut Binlateh, an official with the Office of the Sheikhul Islam, told BenarNews.
“This is a good thing that they listen to people, although he may have taken orders from his superior,” he said, referring to chief of Special Branch.
In an editorial published on Sept. 21, the Bangkok Post slammed the police order, saying it appeared “to constitute both outright discrimination and pure prejudice against a minority group of Thai youth.”
Stereotyping Muslims, the editorial added, “invites abuse of power by authorities.”
Last month, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha defended the order, saying the police needed such information for investigations and for entry into a database.
“The move is not violating anybody’s rights,” Prayuth told reporters on Sept. 17.
Muslims make up the majority of the population in Thailand’s Deep South, where a separatist insurgency reignited in 2004. Thai authorities had arrested at least two Muslim men from the border region and charged them in connection with a series of small bombs that exploded in Bangkok on Aug. 1, injuring four people.