YALA — Civil rights activists on Monday protested the authorities’ collecting of DNA samples from Thai nationals who returned from overseas without their consent.
Reports say many Thai-Malay returnees in the southern border provinces were forced to give up their DNA samples and fingerprints upon returning to Thailand amid the coronavirus pandemic. Activists say security officers gave little to no explanation what the information would be used for, raising privacy concerns.
One of the people who said they had to give up those samples was Ku-usman Jorlong, 36, a native of Yala province. He said he had all required documents when he retired from Malaysia’s Johor state in early May, yet security officers still asked for his DNA.
“There was no explanation. They were also not polite,” Ku-usman, a restaurant worker who was placed in two weeks of state quarantine upon his return, said in an interview. “I was tired trying to go home. If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t be able to return home.”
Police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen disputed the allegations. He said only people caught entering the country illegally would be subject to DNA collection as evidence for prosecution.
“It’s only for those who crossed the natural border,” Kissana said on the phone Monday. “We collected it in order to compare the DNAs. This is not human rights violations.”
But Yala-based rights activist Artef Sohko said he spent a whole day on May 19 observing a border checkpoint, and he was shocked to see numerous people being told to give up their DNA.
“They had no details,” said Artef, a leader of The Patani, a political action group advocating self-determination in the southern border provinces.
Artef said many who re-entered Thailand through the checkpoint had no details about DNA samples collecting and some may have mistaken it for a health measure related to the coronavirus.
“Even I didn’t know it was DNA collecting at first,” Artef said.
Mass DNA sample collection is not unheard of in the southernmost provinces known as the Deep South, where separatist militants battled for an independent state. Security officers said it was necessary to retrieve DNA samples to identify possible militants sought by the authorities.
A 2019 report by the Cross Cultural Foundation, a Bangkok-based human rights group working on Deep South issues, said at least 139 incidents of DNA collection without consent from residents took place throughout that year. The group said some were intimidated into giving the samples.
Even so, reports of similar measures being imposed on immigration checkpoints came as a surprise to many activists. Foundation director Pornpen Khongkachonkiet said she’s planning to petition the Parliament about the incidents.
“DNA samples collecting should only be done on criminal suspects,” Pornpen said.
She cited a case on Saturday, when a returnee who went through Tapad border checkpoint in Songkhla said he was asked to sign a letter of consent for unspecified requests; some details were reportedly covered.
The man was later forced to give his DNA traces to a group of soldiers, Pornpen said.
Ku-usman, the Yala worker who recently returned from Malaysia, said he didn’t know why security officers demanded fingerprinting and DNA samples from him. Ku-usman said his passport already expired by the time he crossed the border because he could not extend it during the pandemic, but he was only fined 800 baht for the offense and no criminal charge was filed.
Ku-usman said he was then given a letter issued by the Office of Police Forensic Science, written in both Thai and Jawi scripts. It is stated in the end that the signed person “agreed to allow officials to collect DNA samples and 10 fingerprints without any coercion.”
The man said officials give him no explanation. Ku-usman said he was simply ordered to sign the paper and open his mouth so DNA samples could be collected with a large cotton bud.
Now he fears the samples could be abused to frame him and others in crimes he didn’t commit.
“I am really afraid,” Ku-usman said.