ASIA HAND US and Thailand: Allies in torture
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - Months before the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and
Washington, the US and Thailand established the Counterterrorism Intelligence
Center (CTIC), a secretive unit presciently which joined the US Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Thai intelligence officials to gather information
about regional terror groups.
Now the unit and its associated staff and directors could one day find
themselves on trial for war crimes over recent revelations first reported
in the Washington Post and later confirmed during a congressional hearing, that
the CIA ran a secret interrogation
facility at a Thai military base where at least two terror suspects from
Pakistan and Afghanistan were transported and later tortured.
The revelations, made in the context of the CIA's destruction of tapes made of
their torture sessions, represent the latest bombshell to explode over the US's
prosecution of the so-called "war on terror" and the first to drag in directly
a Southeast Asian ally.
Political analysts and diplomats in Thailand suspect that the prison was, and
perhaps still is, situated at a military base in the northeastern province of
Udon Thani from where the US launched its bombers during the Vietnam War and is
currently believed to monitor regional radio communications, including inside
Wherever the CIA-run interrogation facilities are situated, the torture of
suspects in Thailand apparently represents the latest US violation of the
Geneva Conventions and also controversially violates Thai law and sovereignty.
The US congressional revelations about the facility also raises hard new
questions about the role and possible complicity of Bangkok-based senior US
officials, including previous US ambassadors Darryl Johnson and Ralph "Skip"
The interrogations captured on the destroyed CIA tapes took place in 2002,
during Johnson's term as the top US official in Bangkok; Boyce, recently
retired from the foreign service, meanwhile recently admitted to a former Thai
legislative aide of having knowledge of the facility but declined to give any
US Embassy spokesman Michael Turner told Asia Times Online that as a matter of
policy he does not comment on intelligence matters and that the recent
revelations about the CIA-run facilities was merely an "old story that has
As one of the US's most trusted regional allies, Thailand was a logical and
secure destination for situating the secret interrogation facilities. Although
Thailand is conveniently not a signatory to the United Nations Convention
against Torture, it has signed onto the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights (ICCPR), which broadly protects human rights, including the
right to a fair and speedy trial for those charged with crimes.
Although the US ratified the ICCPR in 1992, it has in the intervening years
frequently violated the covenant on the twisted and some say spurious legal
argument that several of its articles are not "self-executing". With the
prosecution of its "war on terror", the US has more recently persuaded several
of its regional strategic allies - including Thailand, Cambodia and the
Philippines - to either ignore or reverse their prior multilateral commitments
to rights-protecting international laws and covenants like the ICCPR in
exchange for preferential trade and military deals.
Former prime minister Thaksin Shinwatra's democratically elected government
paved the way for the CIA's secret prison's establishment, first by refusing to
ratify the previous Democrat Party-led administration's decision to sign onto
the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and second by
granting a legal exemption and agreement not to extradite any US citizens who
violated the Rome statute on Thai soil to an ICC signatory third country.
His government also, apparently on the US's urging, introduced
terrorism-related charges into Thai criminal law. In quid pro quo fashion,
Washington rewarded Bangkok in 2003 with the bilateral promise to negotiate a
free trade agreement and upgraded Thailand to major non-North Atlantic Treaty
Organization ally, which allows the Thai military to procure, sometimes at
friendship prices, sensitive military technologies.
Yet the public revelations about CIA-led torture of terror suspects brought to
Thailand cast a harsh new light on that special bilateral relationship and
raises even harder questions about Thaksin’s motivations for allowing the US to
violate Thai sovereignty. Those questions were first mooted after a CIA-led
operation in August 2003 that led to the capture of alleged al-Qaeda operative
and Indonesian national Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, on Thai soil.
Hambali was at the time allegedly immediately extradited from Thailand to an
undisclosed third country location without proper legal proceedings - despite
the fact that he was arrested on Thai immigration rather than terror charges.
In the view of human rights lawyers, the lack of due process makes Thai
officials complicit in the CIA's controversial rendition policy, where terror
suspects have been apprehended around the world and without trial sent to
secret detention facilities, where in many cases they have allegedly been
tortured during interrogations.
Thailand has been lured into such practices from the highest echelons of the US
government. Former US Homeland security director Tom Ridge, during a
presentation in 2004 to foreign journalists in Bangkok, praised Thailand for
Hambali's apprehension, but when questioned about whether the commando-style
arrest represented a violation of Thai sovereignty, he replied that he was not
knowledgeable concerning the relevant Thai laws. President George W Bush in a
press conference before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in
Bangkok months after Hambali's arrest referred to Thai special branch
counterterrorism chief General Tritos Ranaridhvichai as "my hero" for his role
in the sting operation.
Now the bigger security question for Thailand and the wider region concerns
what role the US may be covertly playing in Southern Thailand, where an
increasingly violent Muslim insurgency and counteractions by Thai security
forces have by some estimates resulted in over 2,800 deaths since December
2004. While Washington is far and away the Thai military's largest supplier and
closest foreign trainer, both governments have studiously maintained that the
US has played no role whatsoever in counterinsurgency operations in the Thai
The recent revelations about the CIA's secret prison on Thai soil have cast new
doubts on those assertions, however. So too did a Thai government spokesman's
assertion last week that, after years of official and US denials of any foreign
involvement in what most security analysts view as a local conflict, al-Qaeda
had provided finances to southern Thai Muslim insurgents - a claim that if true
could be deployed to garner public support for more overt US involvement in
combating the insurgents. (Acting prime minister and former army commander
Surayud Chulanont later refuted his spokesman's claim.)
Still, some observers argue that the US has already left its mark on the
conflict, which pits predominantly Buddhist Thai security forces against ethnic
Malay Muslim insurgents. Rights advocates monitoring southern Thailand's
conflict note a striking similarity between the torture techniques US agents
are known to have used against terror suspects held in both Iraq and Guantanamo
Bay, Cuba with those now in practice by Thai security forces against suspected
Thai Muslim militants.
According to testimonies of former Thai Muslim detainees recorded by US-based
rights advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Thai security officials have recently
used torture techniques ranging from sleep deprivation, forced nudity, exposure
to extreme temperatures and even the threat to release German Shepherd guard
dogs on detainees during interrogations. One Thai Muslim detainee was recently
nearly killed after he was left naked in a meat cooler for over 24 hours at a
military camp in Pattani province, according to one rights group.
These controversial and often illegal practices are largely being overseen by
Thailand's Supreme Command's National Security Center, which is known to have
close links with US military officials, according to people familiar with the
situation. Despite the public exposure, Thailand's security forces continue to
act with impunity while the torture techniques they're known to have used in
the recent past continue today, says one of the rights group's researchers.
US and Thai officials will no doubt continue to try to disassociate the CIA's
torture prisons with the Thai military's controversial tactics in southern
Thailand, including the implementation of what some rights advocates refer to
as "US-style" torture techniques. It is telling, they say, that the US has in
the main remained silent about their Thai allies' sustained and by now
well-documented use of torture while interrogating Muslim militant suspects.
Viewed through a realist lens, that policy posture may be explained by the US's
need to maintain cordial ties with Thailand, which until now Washington has
used as its regional hub for prosecuting the "war on terror". That would also
go to explain why, despite immaterial cuts in bilateral aid and public
finger-wagging, the US maintained close bilateral relations and
military-to-military ties after the September 2006 military coup which ousted
Thaksin's democratically elected government.
But by foisting on its regional allies the worst of the Bush administration's
rights abusing excesses - including alleged torture, renditions and running
roughshod over international laws - the US's professed claim to promote
democracy in the region has never rang more hollow in the wake of the CIA
prison revelations. And yet there's considerably more at stake than a mere loss
of diplomatic face.
For those who believe that Bush and senior members and foreign envoys of his
administration should one day face trial for war crimes for their controversial
and many argue illegal prosecution of the US's "war on terror", the CIA's and
US Embassy's actions in Thailand should provide yet another disturbing store of
evidence for international lawyers and rights advocates to build their case.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia editor. He may be
reached at[email protected]