Asia

The woman on a mission to expose torture in Thailand’s troubled south

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Much of Anchana Heemmina’s work involves listening to stories of immeasurable pain, all part of her campaign to stop the cycle of violence that has long haunted Thailand’s troubled southern provinces.

Her work striving for human rights and to prevent torture by state authorities has put Heemmina’s life in danger.

It started when her brother-in-law was arrested in 2008, accused of killing state security forces in the south of the country, where an insurgency has for decades been seeking independence or greater autonomy for the region’s Malay Muslim minority. He was imprisoned for two years before being acquitted of all charges in 2010. The ordeal rocked Heemmina’s family. But it also sparked something in her – the desire to help families who had experienced a similar ordeal.

Heemmina’s days often start with a phone call or text notifying her of someone who alleging abuse in state detention. With her notebook and phone, she will visit their home to record their testimony.

Anchana Heemina and her assistant interview a man about his friend, who was killed during a firefight with the Thai military. The friend was an alleged insurgent and she is trying to find out what happened in the run-up to the fatal incident. Photograph: Luke Duggleby/Redux

“They use many ways of torture: beatings, electric shock, sleep deprivation; they cover their heads with plastic bags,” Heemmina says of claims that Thai security forces abuse suspected combatants. “They also use isolation and intimidate them in many other ways.”

Through Duay Jai, the rights organisation that Heemmina founded in 2011, she has documented almost 150 cases of torture in Thailand’s “deep south”.

“They have mental health and physical problems,” she says of the prisoners when they are released. “Because they were isolated from the community for so long, when they come back, they often have problems with domestic violence in their families,” she says. “This is not good for the peace process. Because many of the men become very angry and then want revenge. Sometimes they want to use violence.”

Heemmina says that the military’s use of torture is a symptom of Thailand’s long-running internal conflict.

Protesters arrested by Thai security forces lie on the ground outside Tak Bai police station near the Malaysia-Thailand border in 2004. Photograph: AFP/Getty

More than 7,000 people have been killed and more than 13,000 wounded since the conflict was reignited in 2004, when Thai police admitted in October that at least 78 Muslim protesters had suffocated in army lorries in a tragedy that galvanised the insurgency and remains a symbol of state impunity. Although the violence is subsiding, bombings, gunfights and targeted killings still occur. The Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the main separatist movement, is still using guerrilla tactics against Thai security forces.

Malay Muslims are estimated to make up less than 5% overall of largely Buddhist Thailand, but they make up about three-quarters of the population in the four southern provinces bordering Malaysia and nearly 90% in the province of Pattani. The conflict has created tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities. Insurgent groups have targeted Thai Buddhists, including teachers and government workers they feel are identified with the state. Rights groups such as Heemmina’s say that security forces also use targeted killings in counter-insurgency operations.

But uncovering state sanctioned torture allegations has its dangers.

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances reports that there have been at least 86 cases of enforced disappearance in the country since 1980. Most of those who have gone missing worked on environmental and land rights.

I was scared that the comments would get so bad that they would encourage people to kill me

Protection International (PI), an organisation that supports environmentalists and human rights defenders, has found that since 2003, at least 62 community-based rights defenders and lawyers have been killed in Thailand because of their work. PI’s numbers do not include the disappearances of political dissidents, a trend that has been rising since 2019.

In 2016, Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command, a controversial military unit focused on national security, accused Heemmina and two other human rights defenders – Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of Cross Cultural Foundation and her colleague, Somchai Homlaor – of defamation. The activists believe the case was a direct response to their work relating to state torture.

Heemmina says the charges against her were false. “It was wrong to use defamation charges just because I talked about the situation of our people in our country. I understand that they want to protect the country, but they feel that security is more important than the people in rural areas.”

Anchana Heemmina and one of her staff work on a report in the office of Duay Jai in Pattani town. Photograph: Luke Duggleby/Redux

Authorities dropped all charges in March 2017.

Then, in 2019, as Heemmina was working on her computer, she noticed an account on Facebook with her photo attached and an abusive headline. In the next few days more defamatory posts emerged. It became clear that this was a coordinated campaign of abuse.

After weeks of pushing Facebook and Twitter, the social media platforms took down the accounts in March 2020. Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy told Reuters that the accounts were linked to the Thai military. Prominent MPs from opposition party Future Forward also released documents that apparently proved the campaign was directed by the state.

“I was scared that the comments would get so bad that they would encourage people to kill me,” Heemmina says.

Heemmina says the situation has improved in recent months. Torture cases in the south are at the lowest level they have been in years, and the Thai government seems to be taking steps to curb the abuse.

Anchana Heemmina and her assistant leave the house of a man interviewed about a man killed in an encounter with the Thai military late last year. Photograph: Luke Duggleby/Redux

But after fighting off years of smear attacks, Heemmina is now demanding accountability for the disinformation spread against her.

“There has been so much impunity,” she says. “We can’t slow down, because if we do and we stop monitoring these cases, then it could start back up again.

“After people started dying inside detention, the military leaders started to worry. It made people around the world know that torture was happening [in Thailand]. And I think this was the turning point.”

Last year, she submitted a complaint to the government, calling for a public apology and substantial damages. Whether Heemmina receives justice or not, she will keep documenting the abuse. It will take more to stop her from offering hope to the victims of one of the world’s forgotten conflicts.

“I do this because I’ve also received so much help. I want to give back – to support others who have faced the same pain.”