Thailand orders phone users in restive south to register with photos

BANGKOK • An order for mobile phone users in Thailand's restive south to submit a photo of themselves for facial recognition purposes is causing an uproar among opponents who see it as further curtailing the rights of the Muslim-majority population in the region.

But an army spokesman yesterday defended the move, saying the facial identification scheme is needed to root out insurgents deploying mobile phone-detonated home-made bombs.

Thailand's three southernmost states - Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat - have, since 2004, been rife with conflict between Malay-Muslim rebels and the Buddhist-majority Thai state, which annexed the region about a century ago.

The tit-for-tat violence has claimed around 7,000 lives, mostly civilians of both faiths, and security forces have detained individuals suspected of being separatist rebels without warrants in the past.

Now, telecommunications companies are requiring all users of the region's 1.5 million mobile numbers to submit a photo of themselves for facial recognition purposes following orders from the army.

The move is drawing anger from rights groups as the deadline to register nears.

Defending the move yesterday, the deputy southern army spokesman, Colonel Watcharakorn Onngon, said: "In cases where the attacker uses a SIM card to detonate a bomb, we can trace the perpetrator."

Registration ends on Oct 31, and anyone who fails to submit his or her photo in the three southern provinces and four districts in neighbouring Songkhla province will have their mobile reception cut off, the colonel added.

Junta leader-turned-premier Prayut Chan-o-cha on Tuesday also said the scheme provides "evidence" about who the real owner of each SIM card is.

"People in the south are not complaining... they know it truly helps reduce violence," the Prime Minister said.

The Muslim-majority south and rights groups have long accused the Thai state of heavy-handed sweeps of the Malay-Muslim population in the region, raising tensions in the communities who feel targeted in their homes.

Using such "flawed" facial recognition technology usually leads to "racial profiling and, in turn, wrongful arrests", according to a statement on Tuesday from rights group Cross Cultural Foundation.

"The risks of racial discrimination may erode public trust in policing the region," it said.

While the rest of Thailand is not subjected to the same requirement of submitting photos, Col Watcharakorn said people with unregistered SIMs travelling to the three provinces will have no cell access.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2019, with the headline 'Thailand orders phone users in restive south to register with photos'. Print Edition | Subscribe