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Thai Military Denies Using AI to Monitor Muslims in Deep South

Mariyam Ahmad
Pattani, Thailand
2020-11-16
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An officer talks with a driver at a Yala checkpoint in June 2020.
An officer talks with a driver at a Yala checkpoint in June 2020.
BenarNews

Thailand’s military does not use artificial intelligence to monitor Muslims in the troubled Deep South, officials told BenarNews, when asked about a recent United Nations report that touched on the matter.

An interim report to the U.N. General Assembly about worldwide efforts to eliminate religious intolerance highlights the importance of safeguarding freedom of religion or belief in all member-states for the successful implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

A line from the report, which was delivered last month, stated that “Thai authorities reportedly surveil minority Muslim groups, including using an AI enabled CCTV system, biometric data and frequent police checks.”

Thai authorities collect DNA samples from Deep South residents for a database, for example, and require cellphone users to register SIM Cards by presenting an ID card and a newly snapped mug shot – to reduce the likelihood of phones being used to detonate explosives remotely.

But a spokesman for the regional office of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC-4) said the military does not deploy artificial intelligence as alleged by the author of the U.N. report, Ahmed Shaheed, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

“We affirm that the ISOC-4 doesn’t deploy AI-enabled system CCTV in the Deep South to monitor or examine persons in the area,” Col. Watcharagorn On-ngern, deputy spokesman for ISOC-4, told BenarNews last week. “We avoid any implementations which affect the people and violate people’s privacy.

“In contrast to the report, the ISOC-4 has supported both Buddhists and Muslims to perform religious beliefs,” he said, adding that the command helps hundreds of Muslims travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage.

The Deep South, which encompasses Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and four districts of Songkhla, is home to almost 2 million Muslims, or about 80 percent of Thailand’s minority Muslim population.

Since early 2004, more than 7,000 people have died in violence in the mainly Malay Muslim southern border region after Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) – the most powerful of rebel groups in the Deep South – reignited its armed campaign for a separate state.

According to Thai officials, insurgents mingle with villagers, making it difficult to identify them.

Anchana Heemmina, director of Duay Jai Group – the NGO based in Songkhla province that was cited by the U.N. Special Rapporteur in his report – said the military has adopted discriminatory practices.

“In our latest report, we talked about race discrimination in the region which is subject to special security measures,” she told BenarNews. “That ranges from DNA sample collection, photo taking of Malay Muslims at checkpoints and SIM card registration with facial recognition system. All of these are not practiced elsewhere in the country.”

Asked whether the military uses AI-powered CCTV, Anchana said she was not sure, but added that SIM card registration would enable this.

“Cell phone registration is for AI-enabled device purposes and the soldiers taking photos of I.D. cards of Malay passers-by is a rights violation, but I’m not sure if that is related to AI-enabled purposes too,” she said. “Using CCTV at check points should be balanced between security and rights infringement.”

CCTV cameras are a common sight in Deep South provinces, including at checkpoints, along roadways and in front of schools.

Col. Watcharagorn denied that photographs collected during SIM card registrations were used for AI-enabled facial recognition via closed-circuit television cameras.

“To link SIM card identity confirmation with the deployment of AI in the region is just a false assumption,” he said. “In reality it is not practical because there is too much room for error.

“Regarding DNA collection, we did that only with individual consent,” he said.

Saki Pitakkumpol, the deputy secretary-general for the Sheikhul Islam Office, the top Islamic authority in Thailand, could not confirm that AI-enabled CCTV monitoring was occurring, but said the military closely watched activities in the Deep South.

“There are no areas the soldiers don’t monitor, even activities involving small children school,” Saki told BenarNews. “They have to be careful to not create hard feelings among everyone. There should not be distrust in such contested areas.”

Deep South reactions

People in the Deep South said they did not know much about artificial intelligence surveillance, but other methods being used to monitor residents were unpopular.

“I don’t know what AI is, but I know about the cell phone registration and DNA collection. I heard the military violated people’s rights, including children and the elderly, forcing them to agree,” Sae-ro Wasoha, a resident of Pattani, told BenarNews. “I personally think officials should try to use a psychological method to persuade residents to cooperate.”

Hezbollah Etae-dam, a resident of Yala, said he had heard only negative news about the military practices.

“I don’t know either what the AI is, but I heard that authorities violate rights regarding DNA collection and SIM card registration,” he said without elaborating.

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