Confined by the Cellphone
Thai government tightens cellphone ownership for citizens of southern territories, a discriminatory policy towards the muslim population in the conflict area.
YUSO Yala had just stepped out of his residence at the Wattana Tham pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in the Panare district of Pattani province, in southern Thailand, when something hit him. At the time, the 46-year-old preacher was heading towards the mosque to do his evening prayer on Sunday, June 30.
Yuso was rushed to the Panare hospital. He survived, but his chest, left armpit and fingers of one hand were injured from the spray of pellets of a grapeshot. Police found bullet casings from a long hunting rifle at the scene of the shooting. Since the bloody conflicts broke out in southern Thailand in 2004, three preachers of the village have died of gunshots from unknown assailants.
“The shot preacher had once been arrested by the Thai military for security reasons. The soldiers accused him of being connected to the armed National Revolutionary Front (Barisan Revolusi Nasional/BRN),” Fahad (not his real name), 35, told Tempo, Thursday, July 3. The man from the Sai Buri district of Pattani is a former student of the Wattana Tham boarding school.
The government looks upon the BRN as a separatist movement for their fierce struggle to seek independence for Malay muslims since the early 1960s. But, for the muslim minority living in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat in southern Thailand, “The BRN is a freedom-fighter organization,” said Fahad.
Armed rebel groups came into being in the 1960s after the military dictatorship tried to meddle in the affairs of Islamic education there. Rebellion died down in the 1990s but flared up again in 2004, and quickly spread when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration put pressure on the rebels, triggering many human rights violations.
In the last 15 years, conflicts between the muslim Malays and the government have continued to erupt in turns. Around 7,000 civilians have died and 11,000 injured.
Rahmat Abdullah, an Indonesian student who has resided in the city of Pattani for two years said, to date, bomb explosions and unknown gunmen still disrupt the villages. “My place is relatively safe because it’s within the campus area,” he said. Almost in every road corner, soldiers or police officers stand guard in security posts and check on passing motorists, on the main road that connects Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat.
The government declared the area a military state of emergency. Soldiers rounded up groups of people suspected as rebels without arrest warrants. “Muslim Malays are often victims of unjustified arrests,” said a staff member of the legal aid Muslim Attorney Center Foundation on Thursday, July 4.
Soldiers also keep scrutiny on pesantrens. Arrests of preachers have become the norm. Soldiers closing down pesantrens are also par for the course for, “being accused as BRN coops, the places where they seek protection, do their training, and store their weapons,” said Fahad.
The military stranglehold has seeped into the realm of citizen privacy when at the end of June, soldiers made it obligatory for all cellphone users in the vicinity of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, and the four border districts in the Songkhla province, namely Chana, Na Thawi, Saba Yoi, and Thepha, to have mugshots taken when registering their telephone number (SIM) cards.
The military, which imposed a deadline for SIM card registration up to October 31, is using the pretext of impeding possible bomb attacks by the rebels. Bombers, they said, usually make use of watches, radios, walkie talkies, or cellphones to ignite homemade explosives. “In the cases where attackers plan to use their SIM cards to ignite explosives, we can now track them down,” said the military deputy spokesman for the southern areas, Col. Watcharakorn Onngon.
The government in fact had already made it obligatory for cellphone users to attach their ID card numbers when registering for a SIM card. But the rebels managed to circumvent the ruling by using SIM card numbers already registered under someone else’s name, by using burgled cellphones, or by buying SIM cards from neighboring countries or through the Internet. This has obviously made it difficult for security authorities to keep check on them.
Military officers referred to two bombing incidents that destroyed the famed Golden Mermaid and the Cat and Mouse statues on Samila beach, Songkhla, in December 2018. The incidents affirmed indications that attackers were employing new methods. The armed forces spokesperson Col. Pramote Prom-in said that a bombing suspect admitted to having ordered his phone SIM card online.
The chief of the military junta who became the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, urged residents of southern Thailand to comply to the new ruling. He stated his confidence the people would not protest for understanding the policy would curb violence in the area. “(It’s) just a photo as a prove of your identity. This is no violation of rights,” he said as quoted by Bangkok Post.
Yet not all muslim residents of the area take kindly to the policy. Fahad is of the opinion that scanning cellphone users’ faces is discriminatory. “Registering one’s ID card should be sufficient. This is going overboard because it is only applicable in the conflict zone, not throughout Thailand,” he said.
Citizens living abroad also cannot comprehend the new ruling. Faizun Leengaedayee, of Cho-Airong district, Narathiwat, who is currently studying at the Sunan Gunung Djati Islamic University in Bandung, West Java, admits he is not prepared to register for a SIM card by having his faced scanned. Moreover, currently he is obviously using an Indonesian number. “Prior, when applying for a SIM card we already had to attach our ID cards and fingerprint scans. Yet bombings still occurred all over,” he said.
The 25-year-old who is President of the Pattani Student Center—the Pattani student coordination center in Indonesia—did not deny that southern Thailand has security problems. He cited the arrest of five persons in Baro village in the Jaha District, Yala, after shooting and bombing attacks occurred on Wednesday July 3. Two people died—one was a member of the black soldiers or Thahan Phran, Thailand’s paramilitary command—and four others were wounded in the incident.
For the around 1.5 million cellphone users in the conflict area, the new SIM card registration ruling is stifling their movements. Thus far, indeed muslim residents there already have their movements curtailed compared to Thai northerners. In the south, according to records by the Muslim Attorney Center Foundation, one security officer watches over every 20 citizens. Inspection posts, numbering 1,800 units, stand a kilometer apart.
Fahad acknowledged the tight military security in his area. He said, soldiers not only keep watch in the inspection posts, but patrol the villages and stand alert in camps in every subdistrict. “Practically everything is under the scrutiny of soldiers, particularly villages included in the red zones for being deemed dangerous because they contain many BRN rebels,” he said.
Fahad’s own village in the Sai Buri district is in a red zone. He was unwilling to accept phone calls from Tempo at nights. He was afraid the calls would be intercepted by patrolling soldiers. Fahad was only willing to receive a phone call in Pattani city, some 50 kilometers from his home, on Wednesday evening July 3. “Now, I am in town. It’s safer than in the village,” he said.