Waterboarding in Thailand

The landslide election victory of the Pheu Thai Party and Yingluck Shinawatra's expected installment asThailand's first female prime minister actually bring to the surface a dark chapter in relations between Washington, DC and Bangkok.

US President Barack Obama's administration has specifically outlawed torture and waterboarding of terror suspects. But when Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra was running Thailand, he collaborated in what the Bush administration called America's war on terror.

Yingluck is the public, smiling face representing her self-exiled, authoritarian brother, whose previous controversial relationship with Washington could provide important clues as to how Yingluck's new government could shape its political, financial and military policies concerning the US.

In the five years since the coup, Bangkok and Washington have enjoyed good relations. But when Thaksin was prime minister, America's national security was a major focus for Thailand. Thaksin's 2001-2006 administration coincided with the arrival of Americans who used cloaks, daggers and waterboarding to expand the US war on terrori. Some critics believe the savage civil war that is going on in the south of the country can be laid directly at the door of Thaksin, who told the military to crack down on Muslim separatist guerillas.

The US Central Intelligence Agency also established black operations where they secretly waterboarded a suspected al-Qaeda facilitator, Abu Zubaydah during 2002 while Thaksin was prime minister, flying in two American psychologists named James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen who helped create the CIA’s interrogation program.

"The [CIA] agency believed tougher-than-usual tactics were necessary to squeeze information from [Zubaydah], so Mitchell and Jessen flew to a secret CIA prison in Thailand to oversee Zubaydah's interrogation," the Associated Press reported in December 2010. The pair waterboarded Zubaydah 83 times, according to previously released records and former intelligence officials."

The psychologists also waterboarded USS Cole bombing plotter Abd al-Nashiri twice in Thailand, according to former intelligence officials, AP reported, although Thaksin and other Thai political and military officials consistently denied knowledge of the CIA's secret prison and waterboarding activity.

The CIA's former head, Porter Gross, agreed with his top aide's 2005 decision to destroy videotapes of harsh interrogation in Thailand, according to internal CIA e-mails, AP reported in 2010. In 2003, shortly after the waterboarding, then-US President George W. Bush visited Bangkok, met Thaksin, and upgraded the country to be an important non-NATO ally.

Today, Bush faces demands by New York-based Human Rights Watch for an investigation into torture and other violations committed in Thailand and elsewhere. On July 12 Human Rights Watch presented a 107-page report titled, "Getting Away with Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees." (http://www.hrw.org/node/100263)

The report's mention of "countries where they were tortured" could bring a fresh focus on US activity in Thailand when Thaksin was prime minister. It is unclear, however, if that would result in requests to Yingluck for information or assistance for an investigation, or how she might respond amid efforts by her new administration to establish good relations with Washington.

Bush and other US officials cited in the report have denied all allegations of illegal activity and it is extremely doubtful that the Obama administration is going to do anything about HRW’s charges.

The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly in a 2007 report titled "Secret Detentions and Illegal Transfers of Detainees" to various countries, called attention to allegations that Thai territory was used for secret torture.

"CIA sources indicated to us that Thailand was used because of the ready availability of the network of local knowledge, and bilateral relationships, that dated back to the Vietnam War," said the report by the council's Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. "One CIA source told us: 'In Thailand, it was a case of ‘you stick with what you know.’ However, since the allegations pertaining to Thailand were not the direct focus of our inquiry, we did not elaborate further on these references in our discussions.

"The specific location of the 'black site' in Thailand has been publicly alleged to be a facility in Udon Thani, near to the Udon Royal Thai Air Force Base in the northeast of the country," the Council of Europe said. "This base does have long-standing connections to American defense and intelligence activities overseas. During the Vietnam War, it served as both a deployment base for the US Air Force and the Asian headquarters of the CIA-linked aviation enterprise, Air America."

During Bush's 2003 visit to Bangkok, he also praised Thaksin for helping the CIA capture an alleged top Indonesian Islamist fighter, Riduan Isomuddin, who travelled under the nom de guerre Hambali, two months earlier in central Thailand.

Hambali was part of "a plan to have terrorist operatives hijack an airplane, using shoe bombs to breach the cockpit door, and fly the plane into the tallest building on the west coast" Bush said in 2006 referring to the 73-story US Bank Tower in Los Angeles, California.

Hambali has been caged in Guantanamo Bay for more than seven years without trial.

Similarly, in 2002, a terrorist suspect from Yemen, Amin Al Bakri, was seized in Thailand and flown by the Americans to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Despite helping the US track and seize terrorist suspects, Thaksin did not later receive Washington's assistance when he needed it the most. During the former premier's last months in power, he pleaded with President Bush for help, apparently fearing the September 2006 coup that soon toppled him.

"There has been a threat to democracy in Thailand since early this year," Thaksin wrote Bush in a secretive 544-word letter dated June 23, 2006, which became public three weeks later. "Key democratic institutions, such as elections, and the observance of constitutional limitations on government, have been repeatedly undermined by interests that depend on creating chaos and mounting street demonstrations in Bangkok, as a means to acquire political power that they cannot gain through winning elections.

"Having failed to provoke violence and disorder, my opponents are now attempting various extra-constitutional tactics to co-opt the will of the people," Thaksin's letter said.

Bush sent a noncommittal 138-word reply two weeks later that said: "Free and open political systems can be unpredictable."

In Thailand, Thaksin was brought down by a combination of royalists, the military, the Bangkok elite and others partly because of his awakening of the poor of Isaan, the rural northeast of the country, and partly because of growing unease over his apparent abandonment of democratic institutions and the perversion of them to his own purposes.

Following the coup, Thaksin was indicted and convicted of charges that he did not pay taxes on US$1.8 billion in profit his family pocketed when they sold their Shin Corp. telecommunications empire in 2006 to the Singapore government's investment wing, Temasek Holdings. Today he remains a fugitive, based in Dubai, avoiding a two-year jail sentence for a separate deal in which his ex-wife purchased real estate in Bangkok at a deflated price while he was prime minister. That exile is expected to end now that his sister has led the Pheu Thai party to victory.

(Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist. His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com)