Notes from the Field

On Patrol with Forensic Police in Thailand’s Deep South

January 29, 2014

While headlines focus on Bangkok as another round of ongoing political protests shut down the capital this week, a long-running, deadly conflict continues to simmer in Thailand’s southern border provinces of Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat, and four neighboring districts of Songkla province. Since the century-old conflict reignited in 2004 in the region – made up of a Malay-Muslim majority and Thai-Buddhist minority – nearly 6,000 people have been killed, among them teachers, monks, soldiers, police, and citizens. Last month, a series of bombings ripped through Songkla province – home to the popular island resort, Phuket. While police were able to find some of the other bombs before they went off, the attack further dampened the peace process.

Thai forensics unit

Forensic police officers arrive at a scene for investigation. In Thailand, Forensic investigation holds special significance in Thailand, where allegations of human rights abuse routinely arise. Photo/Arpaporn Winijkulchai

While one learns about the conflict and its implications in the media, it sometimes takes first-hand observation and experience to comprehend the human face and reality of the conflict for those living and working in the Deep South.

I recently visited Yala Province with a film crew to provide technical support to the Royal Thai Police’s regional Forensic Science Center in producing a video to document its role and institutional capacity through the work of its officers in the field. The film project is part of The Asia Foundation’s efforts to raise public understanding of the role of forensic investigation in criminal justice administration. Forensic investigation holds special significance in Thailand, where allegations of human rights abuse routinely arise, but limited public awareness and understanding of forensic science leads to misunderstandings, misperceptions, and even distrust of responsible agencies.

The first to arrive at a crime scene is usually the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit that checks for bombs and makes sure that the location is secure. The Rangers, or “Thahan Phran,” who are trained and equipped to engage in combat are usually the next to arrive. One of the two investigative operations that I observed left me with a clearer understanding of the balance that the forensic police must maintain between performing investigation in a sensitive and potentially dangerous environment, involving criminal action, and maintaining sensitivity to the circumstance and rights of one suspected for criminal behavior and those whom his or her actions implicate. Forensic evidence can play a critical role in establishing the responsibility or innocence of a suspect, with the latter entitled to be treated with respect and fairly tried on the basis of reliable evidence.

Forensic investigation in Thailand

A forensics specialists works on evidence at the lab. While technical capacity is key to ensuring high standards for forensics work, in Thailand, trust in authorities among communities is currently an issue. Photo/Pranithi Srichaisantikul.

This particular case involved an investigation of suspected possession of firearms. The forensic police rushed to a small community in a rubber producing area of Raman District in the northeast of Yala. The police arrested a male suspect outside a modest house, and took him away for questioning. The forensic police then entered the house, where a petite woman was sitting in the middle of the main room, comforting her son. Her eyes were wide with fear and her face was a blank mask of confusion. Until then, I had been capturing the work of forensic police with my still camera, on seeing the woman and her son and understanding their distress, I dropped my camera to my chest and stopped photographing.

A forensic police officer explained to her that her husband had been arrested, and why they had to search her house. While the officer treated the woman with courtesy and respect, I was reminded of how important it is for police officials to take the time to explain to the family of suspects exactly what they are doing, where the suspected family member has been taken, and what will happen to him or her, when and how they can expect to see him, and the legal or other support on which they can draw to help. In this case, the police officers were the first point of contact for the wife and son of the suspect. Given the trauma that the family was clearly experiencing during the process, I wondered whether a village head or other respected member of the community could play a valuable role in coordinating with the police in providing follow-up support to reduce the stress and anxiety.

When I returned to Bangkok, I made further inquiries into the case and learned that the government had established in October a regional prosecution unit in Pattani province to better manage criminal justice cases in the southern conflict environment and ensure better justice, backed up by forensic evidence, for suspected offenders in the region. New trainings will emphasize the need for justice organizations to be mindful of the need to process cases of this kind in accordance with the country’s criminal justice system and with respect to the rights of suspects and their families.

My trip to Yala underscored the important role that forensic evidence can play in distinguishing innocent people from criminals, and assuring communities that their rights are respected and upheld. While greater attention to the progress of peace talks is good, these talks will not go far if communities do not trust each other or local authorities. Ensuring that those at the front lines of justice in local communities are trained and equipped with the tools they need to perform their duties in a just, humane way is a positive direction.

Arpaporn Winijkulchai is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Thailand office. She can be reached at arpaporn.winijkulchai@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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