In Thailand's Muslim south, phones cut off in surveillance crackdown

Surveillance cameras (CCTV) are seen in Bangkok, Thailand, June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Surveillance cameras (CCTV) are seen in Bangkok, Thailand, June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

What’s the context?

Malay Muslims in Thailand's deep south have lost access to mobile services due to the government’s latest surveillance measure in the restive region.

By Rina Chandran

YALA, Thailand - Teacher Wannawawee Waeyoh used to speak to his elderly mother back home in southern Thailand almost daily after he bought her a mobile phone, until one day the line went dead.

The network provider had cut off service because Wannawawee had failed to submit his biometric data to register its SIM in line with a new government order - the latest state surveillance measure targeting Thailand's Muslim-majority southern provinces.

"The service was cut in the middle of COVID, when I was very concerned about my mother. I had to call my sister to check on her," said Wannawawee, 30, who lives in Yala city, about 1,000 km (620 miles) south of Bangkok.

"The SIM cards are already registered with my national ID - why do they need biometrics, as well?"

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Some 7,000 people have been killed in the past 16 years in a separatist insurgency in the border provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.

Thai authorities said in 2019 that residents of the three provinces, and some districts of Songkhla, had to re-register their SIM cards with their fingerprints and facial image - which is not required in other parts of the Buddhist-majority country.

The order took effect last year just as lockdowns were imposed to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

The country's three mobile service providers sent text messages to customers, then cut off services to thousands who had failed to register by the deadline. While the order applied to all residents, it affected Malay Muslims disproportionately.

Many of them were elderly or lived in villages, meaning they could not travel to cities in time to register their data, according to human rights groups that have questioned the need for biometrics in the southern provinces alone.

Others chose to reject the order, wary of increasing government surveillance in the Malay-speaking southern region.

"The government thinks everyone here is involved in insurgency and anti-national activities, and puts security above our privacy and rights," said Anchana Heemmina, founder of Duay Jai Group, a human rights organisation.

"We have no idea who has access to our data, or how it is used. Insisting on biometrics for mobile phone users only in the deep south is discrimination, and amounts to ethnic profiling of Malay Muslims," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Question of balance

Thai authorities have said the measures are needed to help prevent violence in the region, and that biometrics will help stamp out identity theft and the use of unregistered SIM cards in mobile phones to detonate explosive devices.

"Maintaining public safety and protecting civil rights is a question of balance," said Ronnasil Poosara, commander of the southern border provinces' police operation centre.

Attacks triggered by mobile phones have fallen since the order, he said, adding that tracking suspects had become "more effective" with the use of biometrics.

Worldwide, counter-terrorism has increasingly been cited as justification for new security laws and government monitoring - from mass data collection to the growing use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools to target certain groups.

Last month, Apple Inc warned at least six activists and researchers critical of the Thai government that it believed their iPhones had been targeted by "state-sponsored attackers".

In Thailand's southern border provinces, security forces began collecting DNA samples of Malay Muslims in 2012 for a data bank that officials said would help in their investigations of insurgent attacks.

In recent years, security forces have been collecting DNA samples at checkpoints and during raids of homes and schools, often without consent, said Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation.

The human rights group documented about 140 such coerced cases from January to September 2019 alone.

Authorities have denied that samples were collected without consent.

The southern border provinces were also the first to see the installation of more than 8,000 AI-enabled cameras connected to a central surveillance system that authorities said would ensure the local population's safety.

But there are few details about who provides the technology, how it is used, or what protections people have, said Pornpen.

Thailand's Computer Crime Act of 2016 and the Cybersecurity Law of 2019 give the government authority to conduct surveillance, and to search and seize data and equipment in cases deemed to threaten national security.

In the south, special counterinsurgency laws give authorities even greater powers, with the lack of adequate data protection failing residents, rights campaigners say.

"The use of facial-recognition technology violates people's privacy and freedom ... There is so much surveillance people feel they are in detention all the time. It's constant harassment," said Pornpen.

A spokesperson for Internal Security Operations Command, a unit of the Thai military, said biometrics and facial recognition technology were an essential part of its "monitoring and risk notification system" to identify separatist insurgents.

More vulnerable

From Colombia to China, governments rolled out new technologies and additional surveillance measures during the pandemic that human rights groups say are directed at minority groups, and will outlast the health crisis.

The suspension of mobile services in Thailand's south follows alleged abuses documented by Human Rights Watch including "extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture of suspected insurgents".

Thai authorities have denied these reports.

No official data has been released on how many mobile numbers were suspended after the new order came into effect, but Pornpen estimated that about a third of the nearly 1 million registered SIM cards have been disconnected or risk being cut.

The Cross-Cultural Foundation has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a resident in Pattani against the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, a government agency, which issued the order to mobile service providers. The case is pending.

"Those whose services were cut – they are cut off from their families, their businesses are affected, their children cannot do remote study, and they could not access crucial information on COVID which made them more vulnerable," said Pornpen.

"It's a grave human rights violation."

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