2 decades on, families of Tak Bai Incident victims seek justice

Mariyam Ahmad
2024.04.25
Narathiwat, Thailand
2 decades on, families of Tak Bai Incident victims seek justice Families of Tak Bai Incident victims hold signs as they gather in front of Narathiwat Provincial Court in Thailand where they filed a criminal complaint against government officials over the 2004 killings, April 25, 2024.
Cross Cultural Foundation

Nearly two decades after the Tak Bai Incident where over 80 people died in Thailand’s insurgency-stricken southern border region, the victims’ families filed a lawsuit on Thursday against government officials allegedly involved in the deaths. 

The 48 plaintiffs, accompanied by a team of lawyers, arrived at the Narathiwat Provincial Court to seek justice for the 85 killed and 49 injured in the Oct. 25, 2004, incident before a 20-year statute of limitations in the case expired. 

The incident still stands out as one of the most infamous events in the Thai Deep South, a predominantly Malay Muslim region where a separatist insurgency had reignited in January 2004. Seventy-eight of the 85 victims died while suffocating to death in a prison van where they were bound and stacked in a pile like logs.

Jehamiah Hayee Mayeng, who lost her 19-year-old son, was one of the plaintiffs who gathered at the Narathiwat court.

“We are filing serious charges of premeditated murder. It constitutes a murder with foresight. Even if there was no direct intention, if it is foreseen that such actions could lead to someone’s death, it meets the criteria of the law,” Jehamiah told BenarNews. 

The lawsuit, filed against nine officials from the military, police and government, includes plaintiffs 1 to 34, representing three individuals who died from gunshot wounds in front of the police station or at the hospital and 31 others who died during the notorious transportation incident. Plaintiffs 35 to 48 are survivors of the incident who suffered injuries.

Among the nine officials are two military generals and a police general.

The plaintiffs are being represented by lawyers from the Cross-Cultural Foundation, the Muslim Attorney Center and the Southern Border Provinces Legal Reconciliation Center. 

Although the Songkhla Provincial Court had conducted an inquest into the deaths, the investigating officer had not forwarded the case for prosecution, said Abdulqahar Awaeputeh, director of the Muslim Attorney Center.

“It’s been 20 years and we are also concerned about the evidence, but everything has been recorded. After the incident, several fact-finding committees were established and those involved were summoned to provide clarification which serves as part of the evidence,” Abdulqahar told BenarNews. 

25-TH-tak-bai2.jpg
Families of the Tak Bai victims gather outside the Narathiwat Provincial Court in Thailand before filing a criminal complaint on behalf of the 85 killed and 49 injured in the 2004 incident, April 25, 2024. [Mariyam Ahmad/BenarNews]

“We have collected traces of evidence related to the actions of the officials from various social media, which can be identified. Importantly, the injured victims who are still alive can provide explanations. We believe the evidence is substantial enough for the court to consider,” he said. 

The plaintiffs are asking for charges of murder by torture or brutal acts, coercion causing fear of harm to life, body and liberty, unlawful detention or imprisonment and malfeasance in office by government officials be filed against the nine.

The Narathiwat Provincial Court accepted the complaint and scheduled a preliminary examination of the nine defendants for June 24. 

In 2019 on the 15th anniversary of the incident, family members announced they would not seek legal action against those responsible. At the time, survivor Yaena Salaemae told BenarNews that she and the others had another five years before the statute of limitations ran out.

“Everyone agrees on bringing an end to this because we do not have the resources to fight the state,” Yaena said during a memorial ceremony attended by about 100 in Narathiwat province.

Lawmakers approached

On March 10, relatives of the Tak Bai victims submitted a petition to Chaturon Chaisang, chairman of the Special Committee on Peace in the Southern Border Provinces at the House of Representatives, requesting an investigation into the alleged intimidation by the plainclothes officers. The relatives said individuals claiming to be plainclothes police approached them to discuss compensation, causing significant distress.

Three days later, the Muslim Attorney Center submitted its concerns to the House Committee on Legal Affairs, Justice and Human Rights, urging the members to investigate the incident.

Following that request, the committee summoned officials involved in the investigation who stated that the inquest file noted the investigating officer had concluded the offenders could not be identified, according to officials. The committee could not determine the status of a potential criminal case tied to the incident. 

“This case will test the capacity of the Thai judiciary to resolve conflicts independently and professionally by uncovering the truth in the Thai court’s trial. Moreover, the court’s acceptance of this case is crucial for the peace process to address long-standing conflicts and reaffirm the rule of law in Thailand,” said Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross-Cultural Foundation.

Tak Bai Incident

On Oct. 25, 2004, citizens gathered in front of the Tak Bai police station to demand the release of six village protection officers who were detained on charges of embezzling public property and filing false reports after a government shotgun in their custody went missing. 

Authorities used force to break up the crowd, resulting in the immediate deaths of six people. Dozens of protesters were taken to Ingkhayutthaborihan Camp in Nong Chik, Pattani, about 150 km (93 miles) from Tak Bai. Officials made all the detainees strip to their underwear, bound their hands behind their backs and stacked atop each other in a GMC truck, which led to another 79 deaths. Others were injured – including some who were disabled – or went missing.

In May 2009, the Songkhla Provincial Court ruled that the deaths were caused by suffocation during detainment by officers performing their duties. 

In June 2012, relatives of the deceased appealed to overturn the death investigation verdict, but the court dismissed the appeal. To this day, no officers involved in the incident have been held accountable.

Still, the government in 2013 approved compensation for the Tak Bai incident, totaling 641.45 million baht (U.S. $17.3 million) for those killed and injured in the Tak Bai incident. 

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