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Thai Military Wants US Satellites to Hunt Rebels

Thai Military Wants U.S. Satellites to Hunt Islamist Rebels

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- 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 with hidden roadside bombs in the south.

About 30,000 soldiers are fighting against 8,000 people who support the insurgency, including 2,000 armed rebels, said the Chief of the Royal Thai Army in the south, Lt. Gen. Pichet Wisaijorn.

A London-based Amnesty International official, however, said the Thai military was "torturing" suspects with "suffocation" and "electric shock" at Thai Buddhist temples and elsewhere in the south.

More than 3,700 people on all sides have perished during the past five years in Buddhist-majority Thailand's three Muslim-majority southern provinces.

Much of the southern war is fueled by Muslim ethnic Malay-Thais who are fighting for autonomy or a separate homeland.

Asked in an interview on Wednesday (November 18) what help Thailand's military would like America to provide, so Bangkok can crush the insurgency, Lt. Gen. Pichet replied:

"What I would really like now is a satellite that would focus on their activity 24 hours a day. I would love to be able to look at a screen to see who is laying the landmines."

Lt. Gen. Pichet is the 4th Army Regional Commander, and also commanded Thai troops in East Timor in 2000.

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He said his "superiors" had asked the U.S. for satellite reconnaissance assistance in a "serious" request, "but so far nothing."

Thailand is a non-NATO U.S. military ally.

Lt. Gen. Pichet said satellite "tools and technology" were 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 proved vital for the rebels in killing Thai troops and also Buddhist businessmen, teachers, monks, officials and rubber plantation workers.

The Islamist insurgents have also slain Muslims who they perceive as government collaborators.

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

Bangkok, meanwhile, has not been able to end the insurgency or identify its leaders and network.

Southern Thailand's guerrilla-infested three provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala 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 along a part of an isthmus which opens to the Gulf of Thailand.

The region also borders northern Muslim-majority Malaysia, which has become increasingly Islamic in its effort to impose aspects of Sharia law on its population.

An Amnesty International official said Thai military forces in the south were "torturing" and "interrogating" suspects at Buddhist temples, where some troops have their "barracks" and "strategy" meetings in the yard and among other buildings on the grounds of the sprawling temples.

"I have never received any reports to that effect," Lt. Gen. Pichet said, when asked in the interview about Amnesty International's charges.

"If it is a normal 'asking of questions', that can take place in the temple," Lt. 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," Lt. Gen. Pichet said.

Amnesty International's South Asia Team Researcher, Benjamin Zawacki, said, "Amnesty International has documented reports of torture taking place in those temples during their detentions and interrogations.

"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," he said.

Mr. Zawacki is a lawyer who moved from Washington D.C. to be based in Thailand for Amnesty International, and made the remarks in a separate interview also on Wednesday (November 18).

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

During 2007-2008, Amnesty International interviewed about 50 people in the south who alleged that the security forces tortured them, including "roughly 10" people who claimed their torture occurred at Buddhist temples, Mr. Zawacki said.

Asked what form of torture was allegedly being meted out by Thai security forces among the buildings on the grounds of Buddhist temples in the south, Zawacki replied:

"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 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.

"Certainly the plastics bags, the electric shocks, the beatings, and in some cases scalding with hot water [was not] specific only to the temples, because they would be used elsewhere as well," he said.

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

Washington should heed "the Leahy Law, named after Senator Leahy, that basically conditions U.S. military assistance to foreign governments on compliance with human rights standards," Mr. Zawacki said.

America's financing of Thailand's military means that "the U.S. would have leverage in terms of trying to ensure that [military] units in the south, that it funds or it trains, do comply 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 Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy's Web site.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com

(Copyright 2009 Richard S Ehrlich)

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