A Five-Foot Fighter Battling For Human Rights in Thailand
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the “Land of Smiles” can be anything but.
In April 2016, Pornpen Khongkachnkiet received what would be the first in a series of threatening phone calls. Khongkachnkiet, or “Khun Noi” to her friends, had spearheaded a report, “Torture and Ill-Treatment in the Deep South 2014–2015,” pointing to systemic abuse in the Thai military. A month after the calls started, Noi, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, and two other human-rights defenders were charged with defamation and violation of a computer crimes act. She was facing seven years in prison.
“They wanted to know names,” Noi tells me with a tired raise of her eyebrows. At just over 5 feet tall, slim as a waif and quick to smile, Noi, 47, hardly presents as a headstrong agitator taking on a military junta. Yet when our conversation turns to these cases of “cruel and unusual punishments,” according to her report, her face hardens as she describes a harrowing trend — a trend flagged by human-rights groups like Amnesty, which has accused Thailand’s military of permitting a “culture of torture” to flourish in the wake of the 2014 coup that brought them to power.
Separate from Noi’s work, Amnesty has documented 74 cases of torture and other ill treatment by police and military, including suffocation by plastic bags, waterboarding and electric shocks. The fear is that without intervention, an atmosphere of impunity could trigger a catastrophic cycle of human-rights abuse.
In response, groups like the International Commission of Jurists have rallied behind human-rights defenders like Noi for daring to push for reform. “It was very clear that the defamation claim was being used to harass those particular human-rights defenders,” says Sam Zarifi, secretary general of the ICJ. “But it also was very clearly meant to intimidate others from reporting on this more sensitive stuff.”
For the military, however, the need for political stability has meant that for the past three years — since the head of the Thai Army led a coup that overthrew the elected Yingluck Shinawatra government — any investigation yielding critical findings is taken as a threat. In hindsight, Noi wishes she hadn’t been so quick to overlook the government’s paranoia. “We are not looking to say, ‘This is bad and you are bad,’ ” she explains. “We want to change things for the better with those in power, whoever they are.”
[Noi’s] report contains graphic detail describing 54 cases of alleged torture — from physical assaults to mock executions.
In a statement responding to Noi’s report, Maj. Gen. Banpot Poonpien bemoaned the “one-sided” evidence and suggested the report may have been written to “solicit funding support from abroad.” By questioning her organization’s independence, the suggestion was that Noi and her colleagues were exaggerating events to draw attention to and funding for their cause.
That 120-page report contains graphic descriptions of 54 cases of alleged torture — from physical assaults to mock executions — in the southernmost region of the Land of Smiles. Known as the Deep South, it is a mostly ethnic Malay Muslim area in an otherwise overwhelmingly Thai Buddhist country — and the site of nationalist and religious tensions that erupted into bloody conflict in 2004. The intervening years have claimed some 6,500 lives, while generating allegations the Thai military is committing acts of torture against the region’s Muslim population to intimidate potential ethnic Malay separatists.
When I meet Noi in Bangkok, far from the Deep South’s suffocating martial law — where blast shields and military checkpoints dominate the landscape — we sit in an air-conditioned café in one of the city’s many megamalls. We seem a million miles from the conflict, and yet Noi’s thoughts rarely stray from those southern provinces. Whenever our conversation drifts off topic, she instantly refocuses, sharing the latest news from friends in the region. It’s a trait that has endeared her to the community there.
“She is the one [outsider] that people from my area trust,” says Dr. Pechdau Tohmeena, director of the Regional Mental Health Center in the Deep South. In the past, Tohmeena and Noi, who is Thai and a Buddhist, have worked to bring mental-health support to those, including torture victims, who struggle with issues like PTSD. “People know that when she starts something, she will not just leave. She will be there from beginning to end,” Tohmeena says.
For now, no one sees an end to the conflict, and yet Noi and others insist progress is being made. “About 12 years ago, when the insurgency in the south was really raging, claims of torture, especially by troops in the south, were rampant,” Zarifi says. “It has improved, but they haven’t fixed the problems, and more recently it’s plateaued. The worry now is that it might go backward.”
To avoid any chance of that, Noi plans to keep documenting and reporting on torture to push authorities to address the problem. According to Zarifi, once the Thai government is made aware of alleged abuses, it is legally obligated to investigate each case. If an investigation uncovers evidence supporting the claims, victims are owed justice and compensation. At least in theory: Following Noi’s 2016 report, Zarifi says, “We got a very disappointing [response].”
On March 7, 2017, following almost a year of court appearances, the military dropped its charges against Noi and her colleagues, an abrupt turnaround she attributes in part to lobbying from military officials who support their work. “They exist,” she says with a discernible smile.
The decision came as a huge relief, but it couldn’t erase the disturbing message delivered by the initial charges and 10 months of legal proceedings. If human-rights abuses are to be stopped and legislation put in place as a bulwark against future abuses, “we are dependent on what we know,” Zarifi explains. And what we know, in turn, depends on the security of rights advocates willing to dig deep without fear of phoned-in threats, or worse.