THE Cross Cultural Foundation continues to stand by its report on torture in Thailand’s deep South, which has thrown its key members into a rough ride with security agencies.
Released early this year, the report said that cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment had been meted out to at least 54 people in the southernmost provinces between 2004 and 2015.
“And these people [inflicting torture] have never been prosecuted,” Pornpen Kongkachornkiat, the foundation’s director, said during an exclusive interview with The Nation.
Her foundation published the report alongside the Patani Human Rights Organisation and the Hearty Support Group, trusting the information gathered by Pornpen herself, Somchai Homla-or and Anchana Heemina.
Pornpen has been with the foundation since its inception, working with all her heart and energy for its cause throughout the past 14 years.
Somchai, the foundation’s adviser, and Anchana of the Hearty Support Group are both prominent human-rights activists.
One of the victims they interviewed was a 30-year-old man who preferred to remain anonymous. He told the report’s editorial team that he was cooking on November 30, 2013 when at least 50 rangers stormed into his friend’s house.
“I was with five friends. But I was arrested because I was not a local there. I was tied and beaten up,” he said.
He said a search at his friend’s house had found a gun, which in fact belonged to his friend, but rangers suspected him and hit him even harder after the discovery.
“I believe it was so hard that I fell unconscious from time to time,” the man said.
Another man they interviewed, aged 29, said he was watching television at home on April 10, 2014 when more than 100 armed soldiers and police surrounded his village.
“They tackled me and dragged me farther into my backyard. All four officials were apparently drunk and they kicked me countless times,” he said. “They even forced a gun into my mouth. My throat became inflamed following the incident.”
Now, the Forward Command of the Internal Security Operations Command 4 has accused Pornpen, Somchai and Anchana of defamation and violating the Computer Crime Act.
The lawsuits have affected their organisations’ reputation and operations, but not their morale.
“I must admit that the Cross Cultural Foundation is facing the biggest crisis ever. But I am not discouraged,” Pornpen said.
She has also stood firm in her decision not to disclose the identity of any of the people they interviewed.
“All of these victims are so scared of officials. They shudder just at the sound of a siren. So, definitely, we will keep their identity confidential,” she stressed.
She said that based on information gathered from not just the victims but also family members, there were grounds to suspect that some victims had also been sexually abused while in detention.
“They did not speak about it. But their post-detention behaviour reflected that something had gone really wrong,” she explained.
Pornpen, 46, revealed that she had gone back to an undergraduate course four years ago to seriously study law in the hope that she will one day be able to represent victims in court and help them gain justice.
“Although I have already earned a master’s degree, my educational background does not enable me to be a lawyer. Lately, I’ve kind of thought that if I was a lawyer, I would be able to help people more,” she said.
About 24 years ago, the ‘Black May’ uprising took place in Bangkok, sparking Pornpen’s interest in politics and social work. Somchai was the person who introduced her to the Campaign for Popular Democracy, and ever since she jumped in as an activist, Pornpen has never given up her intention to fight for people.
About 14 years ago, she and her comrades founded the Cross Cultural Foundation, which has been active in helping people abused in the deep South in recent years.
The country’s southernmost region has been struggling with a raging wave of violence for more than a decade. As authorities have been trying to rein in the unrest, intelligence operations have sometimes raised questions.
“Often, it’s the blanket operations [that cause the greatest concern],” Pornpen said. According to her, authorities for example must have already collected DNA samples from more than 100,000 people, including women and children, in the Deep South.
Pornpen said collecting DNA samples from people should only take place when individuals consent to it.
“Authorities have got signed consent from people very likely because individuals are told they have to sign it as part of an investigation process,” she said.
And as the aforementioned report has pointed out, some people end up being victimised in custody.
“When someone lodges a complaint or when an allegation of abuse emerges, the relevant authorities should officially launch an investigation and announce the results,” Pornpen said.
She was upset that when her foundation lodged a complaint over torture in the Deep South, the National Human Rights Commission had dismissed the complaint.
Pornpen also complained that some officials had tried to distance local people from her foundation by saying that it had fallen into legal trouble.
However, despite some frustrations, she takes heart from the fact that her activities have at the very least been pushing Thai authorities to avoid cruel treatment to some extent.
“For example, the government is in the process of amending laws to better protect the rights of suspects,” the activist said.