Understanding the Thai military’s use of AI for surveillance against Malay Muslims

Photo: Pickpik

The Thai military’s high-tech surveillance methods have caused alarm among Malay Muslims in the country’s south. The ongoing surveillance strategy jeopardizes the potential for successful peace negotiations in the restive region.

By Umair Jamal

Thailand’s military continues to use artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to monitor Malay Muslims in the country’s troubled deep south, according to a recent UN report, though military leaders deny the allegations.

A recent report from the UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of religion on eliminating religious intolerance noted that “Thai authorities reportedly surveil minority Muslim groups, including using an AI-enabled CCTV system, biometric data and frequent police checks.”

According to media reports, authorities in the deep south have embraced widespread use of DNA collection and facial recognition technology. The military’s AI surveillance programs aim to carry out racial profiling of Malay Muslims, which subjects them to disproportionate and unnecessary scrutiny.

The Cross-Cultural Foundation, a civil society group in Thailand, has documented more than 100 cases of forced collection of Malay Muslims’ DNA during the military’s anti-insurgency campaigns. The organization believes this number is just a small portion of the actual total. 

According to Thai officials, insurgents socialize with residents in the south, making it difficult to identify the perpetrators of attacks. AI software can use DNA data and biometric information to identify insurgents in towns across the region, at checkpoints and in raids.

Such surveillance systems may have improved the military’s ability to subdue insurgent groups’ activities but the mass surveillance program is creating a climate of fear among the ethnic Malay Muslim population. Though the surveillance program is likely to continue it may be at the cost of increased disenchantment among the targeted populations.

Has the military been using AI for surveillance of Malay Muslims?

The Thai military’s use of high-tech surveillance systems to monitor Muslim populations has been reported widely. Back in 2015, for instance, the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) criticized Thailand’s forced DNA profiling of Malay Muslims. The UNHRC said that the practice amounts to ethnic profiling of a minority religious group.

Reportedly, in the absence of human intelligence in the country’s troubled Muslim majority south, AI provides a sophisticated counter-insurgency tool for the military.

Malay Muslims in Songkhla. Photo: Tarik Abdel-Monem, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Roughly 80% of Thailand’s minority Muslim population lives in the country’s deep south, which encompasses Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat provinces and four districts of Songkhla province. Since 2004, thousands of people have died in a protracted conflict in the region related to calls for autonomy or independence.

The military may now be looking to use technology in place of physical deployments to minimize threats to soldiers and ramp up its counterinsurgency operations. At least 8,200 surveillance cameras are now reportedly deployed across Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces. As surveillance increases in the region, the military could potentially withdraw some personnel.

Why has the military denied reports of the surveillance?

The Thai military has been quick to deny many reports of its surveillance programs. A spokesman for the regional office of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC-4) said the military does not employ artificial intelligence to surveil Malay Muslims.

“We affirm that the ISOC-4 doesn’t deploy AI-enabled system CCTV in the deep south to monitor or examine persons in the area,” Colonel Watcharagorn On-ngern, deputy spokesman for ISOC-4, told BenarNews. “We avoid any implementations which affect the people and violate people’s privacy,” he added.

The military’s denial regarding its operations is understandable for two major reasons: first, the military has traditionally favored soft-power approaches to win the support of Malay Muslims. Its policy in this regard has mainly focused on winning hearts and minds of the Muslim minority populations while taking a heavy-handed approach towards extremist groups. If the government acknowledges a widespread surveillance program, it will only undermine existing efforts to build ties with communities in the deep south.

Second, any such recognition will make it difficult for the government or the military to negotiate in the deep south and build trust. Going forward, the military may consider scaling down its AI-based surveillance operations to diffuse criticism.

What is the future of high-tech surveillance in Thailand?

Tech-driven surveillance is becoming the primary counter-insurgency tool of the Thai military. Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong, a researcher specializing in biometric technology and data collection in Thailand, believes that the use of technology to discriminate against Malay Muslims will only grow in future.

Beyond the conflict in the deep south, Thailand also recently passed a bill that would generate a national digital ID system. However, human rights representatives are worried that this system could be incorporated into the country’s growing biometric surveillance infrastructure. Sutawan Chanprasert, coordinator of internet research at the Bangkok NGO Digital Reach, says that “We don’t have the robust personal data regulation, and when it comes to the Cybersecurity Law, the authorities can access information gathered by internet service providers.”

“There’s no guarantee against misuse after the data is gathered, and no law that stipulates what state agencies can do with the data,” he added.

This essentially means that in the absence of regulatory authorities the military has a free hand to carry out its mass surveillance activities on Malay Muslims and others it considers to be security threats.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15