On Christmas Day last year, a Narathiwat court ruled after an inquest that Imam Yapa Kaseng, 56, was tortured and killed - on March 20 or 21, 2008 - by his captors, a group of soldiers from the Army's 39th Task Force. The inquiry determined that the cause of the imam's death was blunt-force trauma, including rib fractures from the front, side and back that punctured his lungs. Bruises and wounds were found all over his body, including his eyes, forehead and lips. Imam Yapa also had long abrasion marks on his back, indicating he may have been dragged by his ankles across a hard and rough surface.
For the government and the Army, the incident was probably the biggest setback in the South since the Tak Bai massacre in October 2004, when security forces stacked hundreds of demonstrators, one on top of another, in the back of military transport trucks. It ended in the suffocation of nearly 80 young men - not to mention those who had been gunned down at the protest site.
The inquest has taken a long time to get to this point, but better late than never. For Thailand's justice system, the moment of truth is now. Justice must be ensured if society is to have faith in the legal system, which has come under tremendous scrutiny, especially in the deep South, where more than 3,400 people have died in the ongoing insurgency.
Yesterday, New York-based Human Rights Watch, one of the organisations leading the call for justice on this case, as well as others, called on the current government to live up to its promise. A policy statement by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva delivered to Parliament on December 30, said justice would be integral to resolution of the conflict in the southern border provinces.
"The court gave a brave and unprecedented verdict in the inquest, putting its finger on torture and other abuses committed by Thai security forces," said Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director.
"This is not an isolated case of rogue soldiers, but part of a broad pattern. Now it is Prime Minister Abhisit's turn to show political courage and ensure the prosecution of the soldiers and officers who ordered and carried out the killing."
It's appalling that Thai society does not see the importance of getting to the bottom of this case. We have a tendency to see incidents in the Muslim-majority South as "us and them", as if the ethnic Malay Muslims are supposed to have fewer rights then the rest of the people in this country. Such thinking makes it easier for us to overlook violations such as the killing of Imam Yapa.
The entire effort of this and previous governments has been centred on winning the hearts and minds of the southern communities. The vast majority of the people in the deep South are Malay Muslims who see themselves as colonial subjects rather then full-fledged citizens of Thailand.
We tell them and we tell ourselves that each of us is equal in the eyes of the law, but only in practice can such a statement be appreciated. That is why it's important that justice be rendered in this case, which has captured so much attention not only in the domestic audience but the international community as well.
With a new government in place, this is an opportunity to overhaul the counter-insurgency strategy and impose effective civilian control over the Army, as well as provide efficient redress for victims of abuses. We also need to think seriously about changing our perception of the violence and to understand it as a historical conflict, rather than in the narrow definition of law and order. From there, we can talk about dialogue and negotiation with the separatists who, for the time being, don't seem to be interested in surfacing.
Unless we take these militants seriously and understand their motivation and grievances - which continue to drive young men to take up arms against the Thai state, generation after generation - the problem of the deep South will always remain with us.