Muslims in the conflict-blistered Thai south on Friday marked with prayers the 15th anniversary of the deaths of scores of protesters who suffocated in army trucks — an incident that galvanized an insurgency and remains an emblem of state impunity.
Known across Thailand’s “deep south” as the “Tak Bai massacre”, the October 25, 2004 incident remains one of the deadliest days in the rebellion by Malay-Muslims against rule by the Thai state, which colonized the provinces bordering Malaysia over a century ago.
Seventy-eight people suffocated after they were arrested and stacked on top of each other in the back of Thai military trucks, face down and with their hands tied behind their backs.
Seven more were shot dead as security forces used live rounds on a large crowd of protesters who had gathered outside a police station calling for the release of several detainees.
Yaena Salaemae, 60, remembers the day with startling clarity — of how police used water cannon and warning shots, and later kicked protesters after forcing them at gunpoint to crawl along the ground.
“They were forced to crawl with their hands tied behind their backs,” Yaena, who organized the yearly prayer marking the anniversary, told AFP. “I will never forget this day.”
The low-profile service, attended by about 100 people, included a tribute to the dead and a peace blessing.
Hajeeding Maiseng, who took part in the protest, still bears the scars — a long gash trailing his right rib and a bullet wound right below it.
“I still cannot work in my rubber plantation properly,” the 64-year-old told AFP.
Since the incident, more than 7,000 people — the majority civilians, both Muslim and Buddhist — have died in near-daily shootings, ambushes and bomb blasts as rebels fight for greater autonomy from Thailand.
Despite the high death toll, the highly localized unrest garners few international headlines.
No members of the Thai security forces have been prosecuted over the Tak Bai incident, despite a government inquiry condemning the actions of security forces on the day.
‘Like he wasn’t human’
Samsiyah Auseng, 30, wants justice for her brother Abdulhadi Auseng, who took part in the protest and was killed.
“They treated him like he wasn’t human,” she told AFP, adding that while her family had received compensation, the perpetrators should still be arrested.
Instead, Tak Bai has become synonymous with lack of accountability in a region governed by emergency laws and flooded with army and police units — a powerful recruiting tool for the insurgency.
“After 15 years of armed conflict, no government officials have been charged,” Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF) which works on rights in the troubled region, told AFP.
“That has proved impunity in the Thai judicial system is the greater tragedy.”
Years of peace talks between the Thai state and a collage of rebel groups have fizzled and mistrust runs deep on both sides.
Malay Muslims, whose culture is distinct to that of Buddhist-majority Thailand, accuse security forces of routine abuses including prolonged and arbitrary detention without charge as well as extrajudicial killings.
The Thai side blames rebels for driving the tit-for-tat violence, which has seen scores of teachers killed as symbols of state influence, as well as bomb attacks on military patrols and raids on checkpoints.
The rebels, who operate in secretive local cells, have rarely taken their fight outside the border zone.
But they are suspected of involvement in a series of small, symbolic bombs in Bangkok in August during Thailand’s hosting of Southeast Asian leaders at the ASEAN summit.