Bangkok – It was meant to be a "peace-building training programme" to re-educate young men in Thailand's deep South who are believed to be displaying potentially militant behaviour. But the plan, which comes under the purview of Interior Minister Kongsak Wantana, has come under fire for being nothing more than a scheme designed to enhance the political standing of local officials while doing nothing to address the root causes of the problems in the restive region.
The programme got off to a bad start on Dec 11 when only 15 out of the 137 young men who were supposed to attend the camp showed up. The 20-day camp at an army barracks in Songkhla is designed to teach participants values such as loyalty to the kingdom and to discourage them from embracing separatist ideas. The government will also provide a training programme for participants who are unemployed.
According to Minister Kongsak, while none of the 137 men are key suspects or accused of being involved in the southern violence, they are considered to be potential risks. He added that the 137 – all aged 23 and below - had voluntarily given their names to the government and expressed their willingness to undertake the re-education programme in order to clear their names.
"The project encourages local youngsters to prove their innocence in order to clear their names and pledge that they have not and will not become involved in terrorist activities," Mr Kongsak said on Dec 10.
However, many of the young men who refused to attend the camp told The Nation that they did not understand why they needed to be re-educated as they had done nothing wrong.
Assan, a 22-year-old from Yala, said that on Dec 9, he received a letter from local officials informing him that he was on the list of people who must report to the town hall immediately.
"Throughout the past month, officers have constantly raided and searched my house, even though I have never taken part in any violent act or rebellion against the government,'' he said.
"So when the letter of invitation came, I was compelled to go for fear of being framed for some kind of crime I had not committed.''
A number of those assigned to the programme met southern MPs on Dec 11 to discuss how to lodge a petition with the National Human Rights Commission over the alleged abuse of their basic rights.
Mr Somchai Homlaor, of the Law Society of Thailand's human rights committee, said the government was trying to showcase artificial numbers by rounding up terrified villagers. His committee is also looking into villagers' complaints their houses are being raided daily for no apparent reason.
Mr Worawit Baru, vice-rector of Prince of Songkla University in Pattani, said parents of the youths who were ordered to attend the camp were very upset after learning from the media that their children had been labelled as "potential risks". Trust between officials and locals – never high in the first place – is likely to diminish further due to this incident, he added.
* Southern youths shun re-education (The Nation, Dec 12)
* Peace-building training slammed (Bangkok Post, Dec 12)