Academics, legal experts and rights activists are calling on the government to lift the Emergency Decree which it had put in place to control the southern insurgency and Covid-19 crisis, saying the tough law is being misused to quash dissent despite it having little effect on controlling Covid-19 transmission as well as the simmering conflict in the South.
The call to end the Emergency Decree's enforcement was reiterated in an online public discussion titled "16 Years of the Emergency Decree: From the Southern Border Provinces to Covid-19", which was organised by Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, along with the Cross Culture Foundation and the International Commission of Jurists last Thursday.
"It has been 16 years since the government first announced the enforcement of the Emergency Decree to cope with the insurgency in the South. The decree is still in effect in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, but the armed clashes in the area are still happening," said Anchana Heeminna, a human rights activists based in the South.
Ms Anchana, who is also a founder of the Duay Jai group, an organisation which provides aid and rehabilitation services to victims of torture in the far South, said the imposition of the decree has led to the deployment of the armed forces "for peacekeeping" -- but in reality, troops are terrorising the local Muslim population over their perceived association with insurgent groups.
The Emergency Decree, along with the martial law decree and the Internal Security Act -- which have been imposed in Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla since 2005 -- allow security officers to take extraordinary measures in the name of tackling the southern insurgency, including carrying out raids and arbitrarily keeping suspects in military detention for up to 30 days.
Since then, the decrees have been renewed every three months, for a total of 63 times.
As a result of the decrees' enforcement, Ms Anchana said over 7,000 people -- including 24 women and as many as 132 children -- have been detained in military bases with no access to their next of kin and/or lawyers, while at least 144 people have said they were tortured by officers in an effort to extract a forced confession since 2010.
"This is a serious violation of human rights. At least five people died while detained in military bases and 271 were killed extrajudicially, with many victims of state inflicted violence left permanently scarred, both physically and mentally," she said.
"The enforcement of such totalitarian rules over the deep South is clearly not solving the conflict in the region. In contrast, it is deepening the wounds among the Muslim population. The imposition of the Emergency Decree has to end now, and we must find another way to resolve the conflict."
The use of the Emergency Decree to deal with the new wave of Covid-19 infections has also yielded adverse results, former National Human Rights Commissioner Niran Pitakwatchara said, noting the consolidation of governance under the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) has actually led to the rollout of ineffective disease control measures which greatly impinge on the basic rights of many people.
"Thailand actually did a great job preventing Covid-19 transmission, as we deployed local health volunteers to oversee disease control operations within their localities. This decentralised measure under the Communicable Diseases Act was proven to be effective during the first wave of the pandemic," Dr Niran said.
However, he said, the country's Covid-19 control measures took a different turn after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced the Emergency Decree, which led to the centralisation of power under the CCSA in March last year.
The result was the mismanagement of the Covid-19 situation, as reflected by the chaotic vaccine procurement programme and the rollout of extensive restrictions on activities which has only led to severe difficulties and great economic damage, especially on small businesses, he said.
Dr Niran raised his concerns over the use of the Emergency Decree to prosecute individuals who posted information which may cause public panic, saying the enforcement of such a rule has greatly eroded free speech in the country, which he believed would lead to further censorship of the press.
"The Emergency Decree is a special law to control people, to force them to do or not to do what government wants. By nature, [the decree aims to] control the truth," he said.
"I call for the end of the enforcement of the Emergency Decree, and urge the government to use the Communicable Diseases Act to fight Covid-19 instead."
Meanwhile, Internal Security Operations Command spokesperson Col Kiattisak Neewong said even though it has been 16 years after the Emergency Decree in the far South was first enforced, there is still a need for the imposition of special laws in the region, as the insurgency is not over yet.
"The three southernmost provinces are a special area which needs special laws to keep peace and order. Elsewhere in Thailand, the majority of people are not under the influence of insurgent groups. But [in the South] there are regular attacks against officers with weapons of war," Col Kiattisak said.
"If any party wants the Emergency Decree in the far South to end, I would say the insurgency needs to end first. If the region is peaceful, there will be no need for special laws."
As for the allegations of torture within military camps, Col Kiattisak denied such a practice ever occurred in official interrogation centres, as the rooms are fitted with CCTV to monitor the process.
"If it is found that the suspects are innocent, they will be allowed to walk free, but if they are found guilty, the officers will read them their rights, before proceeding with arrest procedures, he said.