- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2009


Thailand’s military wants the U.S. to provide satellite equipment and imagery so it can hunt thousands of Islamist separatists who are killing Thai troops and civilians in an attempt to establish a strict Muslim state in the south.

About 30,000 soldiers are fighting against 8,000 insurgents and their supporters, including about 2,000 armed rebels, said Lt. Gen. Pichet Wisaijorn, the Royal Thai Army chief in the southern region.

An estimated 3,700 people on all sides have perished during the past five years in Thailand’s three Muslim-majority southern provinces.

Much of the southern war is fueled by Muslim Thais who say they are fighting for a separate homeland autonomous from the Buddhist-majority nation.

Asked in a recent interview what help Thailand’s military would like America to provide, Gen. Pichet replied:

“What I would really like now is a satellite that would focus on [insurgent] activity 24 hours a day. I would love to be able to look at a screen to see who is laying the land mines.”

Gen. Pichet is the 4th Army regional commander. He also commanded Thai troops in East Timor in 2000.

He said his superiors had asked the U.S. for satellite reconnaissance assistance but that nothing had been arranged thus far.

The State Department declined to comment.

Gen. Pichet said satellite imagery is being sought from the U.S. “because I know that they are good at this kind of technology.”

Roadside bombs and other hidden explosives have become weapons of choice for rebels, who target Thai troops, Buddhist businessmen, teachers, monks, officials and rubber-plantation workers.

The Islamist insurgents also kill Muslims whom they perceive as government collaborators.

The military’s crackdowns have resulted in some successes against the rebels, but they also have killed innocent civilians.

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused Thai military forces in the south or “torturing” suspects, often at Buddhist temples that its troops have commandeered.

Amnesty claims that temple grounds also have been used for barracks and to hold strategy meetings.

Insurgents have infested three provinces in southern Thailand - Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala - that are mostly jungle-clad hills dotted by 2,000 villages and laced by narrow, isolated roads.

The vulnerable roads lead to larger towns and to fishing villages.

The region also borders Muslim-majority Malaysia to the south, a nation that has become increasingly strict in efforts to impose aspects of Shariah law on its population. For example, Malaysia has outlawed use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims when referring to God, and it has confiscated thousands of Bibles in which “Allah” appears in the text.

Accusations of human rights abuses by Thai troops in their battle with insurgents threaten to complicate any bid for U.S. military aid.

“One of the most disturbing aspects of the use of that torture was that a lot of it was taking place in the Buddhist temples, where special task forces and other parts of the security forces are actually based,” said Benjamin Zawacki, a South Asia researcher for Amnesty International.

Mr. Zawacki - a lawyer who moved from Washington to be based in Thailand for Amnesty International - made the remarks in a separate interview.

He said Amnesty International did not have any independent “forensic evidence” of torture and based its reports mostly on the testimony of detainees.

During 2007-08, Amnesty interviewed about 50 people in the south who claimed the security forces had tortured them, including about 10 people who claimed their torture occurred at Buddhist temples, Mr. Zawacki said.

“The most common is the use of plastic bags over the head to simulate, or simply to cause, suffocation - not to the point of death, of course, but to simulate the feeling of suffocation.

“Electric shock, both to the feet and to the genitalia, and beatings which would rise … to the level of torture” also occurred at the Buddhist temples, he said.

“The fact that it is a religious institution, a religious establishment, is not causing the security forces to hesitate or to think twice about these sorts of clearly illegal and immoral acts,” Mr. Zawacki said.

Amnesty International also condemned torture and other atrocities, including beheadings, frequently committed by the insurgents.

Washington should heed “the Leahy Law,” named after Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, “that basically conditions U.S. military assistance to foreign governments on compliance with human rights standards,” Mr. Zawacki said.

“First enacted in 1997, the Leahy Law is an essential tool for protecting human rights,” said a statement on Mr. Leahy’s Web site.

Gen. Pichet said he has received no indications of torture or serious rights abuses taking place in temples.

“If it is a normal ‘asking of questions,’ that can take place in the temple,” Gen. Pichet said. “A normal chat, a normal asking for information. But not serious interrogations.

“The kind of questioning we are talking about is the kind that can take place any place on the side of the road. These are not people we believe are guilty of serious intentions,” Gen. Pichet said.

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