Dress the Tak Bai wound

Dress the Tak Bai wound

October, 2004: The bodies of young men crushed and smothered to death are removed from army trucks. (File photo)
October, 2004: The bodies of young men crushed and smothered to death are removed from army trucks. (File photo)

The 13th anniversary of the Tak Bai "incident" is coming next week. Authorities in the South claim to be worried that insurgents might mark that shameful event with terrorist attacks. That is a clear and present danger, but the people who should be most worried have so far stayed silent and perhaps oblivious. The military government and the army have the power to take away the resentment and motive for violence, but once again have chosen not to act.

Starting with the "incident" itself, what actually happened was that 85 young men died as a direct result of poor decisions and lamentable actions by the army. They were either killed outright or detained, shackled and under full control when officers ordered they be stacked like cordwood in the back of army trucks. The men were crushed or suffocated while the trucks cruised down a Narathiwat highway, supposedly to take the arrestees to an army camp.

Prior to this scandalous and arguably murderous treatment, the arrestees were involved in or watching a protest against previous government mistreatment of arrestees, including unexplained deaths. Police at Tak Bai, a district in the deep South's "red zone" of the most intense separatist violence, felt the protest had got out of hand. They called in the army to quell the demonstration.

Video footage that is banned in Thailand shows that the soldiers used no crowd control measures. They simply moved into the thick of the crowd, shooting, beating and kicking protesters until all had fled or were lying, face-down at gunpoint. The bodies of seven people killed by the troops were taken away. Then, out came the plastic handcuffs, after which the bound and detained young men were stuffed in the trucks where more than six dozen of them would soon die within the hour, without any help from their captors.

What came next is what inflamed feelings in the Tak Bai area, and gave a 13-year impetus to the terrorist attacks of the separatist gangs. The Royal Thai Army commander, Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, refused to take any responsibility or account for the deaths. Then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra worsened the situation. He claimed the 78 men from Tak Bai had all suffocated or been crushed because they were so weak from fasting during Ramadan.

This impunity is the reason things have not gone well in the Tak Bai area since then. In 2006, coup-appointed prime minister Surayud Chulanont -- himself a former army commander -- made a faux apology to Tak Bai residents by blaming Mr Thaksin. In 2012, a full eight years after the deaths, a court-conducted inquest absolved everyone involved. The Supreme Court then ruled there was no ground for appeal.

Legally, then, the "incident" is settled. Not so much on the ground, however. Late last week, the deputy chief of Narathiwat's Muang district, which adjoins Tak Bai, warned that trouble could once again be on the way.

The Oct 25 anniversary of the "incident" is at the time of the royal cremation, which will be marked in Narathiwat, as it will be in every Thai province.

It is not too late, and in fact may be just the right time, for those with a large sense of responsibility to act. Then-army commander Gen Prawit is now the Minister of Defence. It is entirely likely he could affect the security situation in and around Tak Bai.

Words of apology and contrition might make a difference. It would also certainly add credence to, on a micro level, the promise by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to promote reconciliation.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : ploenpotea@bangkokpost.co.th

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