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Sun. June 16, 2024
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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Where the Thai Criminal Justice System Fails


By Jena Musmar

The democratic decline of any regime can be first seen through the declining legitimacy of its criminal justice systems. Syria, El Salvador, and China are only a few examples of how abusive regimes bend the rule of law to silence dissidents and consolidate their rule. Sentenced anywhere from three to fifteen years, the Thai monarchy is no exception in utilizing its criminal justice system to maintain its legitimacy and suppress political dissent. While the concept of imprisoning youth, intellectuals, and dissenters is not new in Thailand, it has consistently failed to repress the political demands of one group, the Patani people. The world's oldest conflict, the Patani people of Southern Thailand demand statehood in the face of a brutal occupation. Met with arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and military abuses, the people nevertheless display a strengthened sense of patriotism and belief in their separatist political party, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). Calling those who die at the hands of the regime as martyrs, the abuses of Bangkok motivate the people to pursue greater demands of self-autonomy rather than suppress them.

The Thai monarchy overall is experiencing a decline in public perception of legitimacy and stability. In 2022 and into 2023, the nation erupted in youth-led democracy protests demanding democratic reform after the passing of a bill that suppresses free speech and assembly. The streets of Bangkok filled with people with mutilated feet, begging for money, is a somber reminder to many of the police brutality and misuse of legal systems to suppress free speech. While the demands of the Patani people and the general public of Mainland Thailand differ, they both point to the flaws of Bangkok's criminal justice system. Regardless of how much the regime strengthens its anti-free speech enforcement, the demand for human rights persists. Maintaining an oppressive legal system has failed in the mainland and its southern territories and risks greater security threats should Bangkok continue to do so.

The Muslim minority in Southern Thailand has a distinct Muslim culture, traditions, and language, the people are a stark difference from mainstream Thai identity. Recognizing such, the people have longed to demand statehood in the face of Bangkok’s occupation. No matter the number of rounds of peace talks, including the BRN’s political wing’s concession of statehood demands, many Patani people and the BRN’s own military wing have explicitly stated their reluctance to support any peace process sacrificing prospects for statehood viewing the sacrifice as humiliating and delegitimizing the BRN in itself. A public opinion study done by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies found the greatest concerns among the minority are the impunity, lack of accountability by authorities operating in their areas, the constant presence of the military, and the multitude of checkpoints in the provinces are symbolic reminders that Patani is under the occupation of the Thai State regardless of the ongoing peace talks; each of which they say strengthens their demands for statehood. Many people in the study particularly noted distrust in the Thai regime. Regardless of what efforts they claim to invest in the peace dialogues, the ongoing military abuses make many people view them as untrustworthy and justify violent acts of resistance.

Beyond normalized abuses of the rule of law and violations of human rights, enforced disappearances are a regular occurrence. Primarily abducting and discarding dead young adult men or exiled BRN figures in Malaysia in Malaysian rivers, Patani women are inspired to create a new form of resistance. Gathering together in another’s house, human rights attorney Pornpen Khongkachonkiet states that local Patani women secretly meet to openly criticize Bangkok and discuss the whereabouts of their missing persons. No matter the extent to which Thailand goes to suppress dissent, it is the lengths it goes to that in and of itself emboldens all Patani people to pursue some form of resistance and statehood.

It is unlikely that any criminal justice system, no matter the extent of its suppression of free speech, can achieve an Orwellian standard of suppression. However, as Bangkok continues to exhaust nearly half of its military budget on the Patani region alone, it has achieved the opposite of what it set out to achieve. Compounded by expected democratic protests and the general instability of the current King, the nation’s criminal justice system and abusive policies failed to achieve what it set out to do. Instead, it helped the Southern region justify violent acts of resistance, honor those who died in their resistance, and legitimize the rule as representatives of the people. Its own criminal justice system now poses the greatest security threat.

Jena Musmar is a Senior at George Mason University studying Government and International Politics. She is also a Policy Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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