New efforts are under way to account for people missing in Thailand's troubled southern provinces after almost two years of insurgent violence. Bodies are being exhumed to address fears that security forces have secretly killed people to fight the insurgency.
The exhumations from cemeteries in Thailand's mostly Muslim southern provinces, due to start in January, are part of efforts to track down people who have disappeared since the insurgency began nearly two years ago.
The government's Bureau of Missing Persons and the National Reconciliation Commission are leading the effort. The commission was set up to ease tensions between the Muslim minority and Buddhist majority, which have been frayed by the insurgency.
Dr. Porntip Rojanasunan, director of the Justice Ministry's Central Institute of Forensic Science, will oversee the exhumation of over three hundred unidentified bodies in the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.
"We try to find a solution in the local area, in three provinces. Pattani, there are about 300 unidentified remains - in just only one year - 80 percent for murder. But in Narathiwat, there's about 30 [unidentified] and Yala just 20 or 30," he said. "So we try to start in Pattani first."
The bodies will be dug up and examined to investigate allegations that the military and police murdered some suspected militants.
Officially, fewer than 20 Muslims are reported missing in the south. But a Thai senate committee alleges that dozens have disappeared after being dragged from their homes by men in military uniforms.
The Thai Human Rights Commission says up to two hundred people may have disappeared. It has documented allegations of suspects being beaten, strangled, electrocuted and humiliated by state interrogators.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has acknowledged that some police officers acted overzealously, and promised abuses would end. But Sunai Phasuk, with the Bangkok office of the group Human Rights Watch, says the officers should be held accountable.
"Is the government going to hold them accountable to this crime? And these forced disappearances are serious human rights violations, which violate not only the Thai law, but international [law]," he said. "Still we don't see any act of responsibility from the Thai government."
Muslim lawyers say police continue to use torture and coercion to obtain confessions from suspects.
Mr. Sunai blames what he calls heavy pressure from the government to end the violence. Over 1,000 people have died in the south since the insurgency began. Most of the victims have been civilians, often civil servants, teachers and poor rubber farmers.
"Since the new spate of violence broke out in southern Thailand there seems to be a concerted attempt of the authorities, particularly the law enforcement, to meet with unrealistic deadlines put in place by the prime minister to solve the cases," he said.
The investigation into the missing people in the south does not include the case of a respected Muslim human rights lawyer, Somchai Neelapaichit. He disappeared in March 2004 after he was seen being bundled into a car in suburban Bangkok.
Mr. Somchai was representing four Muslim teachers who authorities had accused of being members of the regional terror group, Jemaah Islamiyah. All four men have since been released.
Four police officers face charges of theft and assault in the Somchai case but have not been charged with abduction due to a lack of evidence.
Mr. Somchai's wife, Angkhama Neelapaichit, says little progress has been made in finding her husband.
"If they ask me again today what I want - I can't say that I want justice," she said. "What I want to know is where is Somchai - is he dead or alive?"
Recently, she met with Justice Ministry officials, to plead for greater attention to her husband's case.
It is not clear who is leading the Islamic insurgency in the south, where most of Thailand's Muslim minority lives. The provinces are among the poorest in the country, and Muslims there have long complained of discrimination by Thailand's Buddhist majority.