October 28, 2004

We write to urge your government to immediately launch an independent and impartial criminal investigation of Thai security forces implicated in the deaths of at least 85 people in Narathiwat province this week. Security forces shot and killed seven protesters and at least 78 protesters were suffocated or crushed to death as they were being transferred to detention facilities. Some 1,200 people are still held by military authorities, without access to legal representation and with questionable medical attention. This incident marks a major escalation of the violence in predominantly Muslim southern Thailand, where more than 400 people have already been killed since the beginning of the year.

Your government should act urgently to prosecute to the full extent of the law those responsible for these deaths (up to and including the highest levels of the chain of command) and to compensate appropriately the victims of human rights violations by Thai security forces.

Since your government assumed power, Thai security forces have increasingly used excessive force and operated with impunity, particularly in southern Thailand. There has been no accountability for over two thousand extrajudicial executions carried out by security forces in the “war on drugs” launched by your government; there has been no accountability for the unnecessary use of lethal force by security forces who killed some 110 militants armed only with machetes, most aged between 15 and 20, in Kruesi Mosque in southern Thailand on April 28; and there has been no accountability for the March 18 “disappearance” of Somchai Neelapajit, a prominent human rights lawyer representing two Thai Muslims facing terrorism charges, who is strongly suspected of having been abducted and killed by security forces. Each incident fostered the atmosphere of impunity in which security forces in Narithawit seemed to be operating this week.

Preliminary information received by Human Rights Watch indicates that Thai security forces used excessive force in breaking up the demonstration in front of Takbai police station on October 26. Contrary to your assertions immediately after the incident, witnesses and media accounts report that police and military forces fired live ammunition at protesters who did not pose a serious threat to the police or to others. Aside from the seven protesters killed by gunfire, we have received reports of several people seriously injured with bullet wounds. Other witnesses and protesters say they were beaten after they were taken into custody by security forces and that they were thrown face down into military trucks and piled four or five high. Early forensic reports suggest that some detainees died as a result of broken necks.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials states that law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall as far as possible apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The legitimate objective should be achieved with minimal damage and injury, and preservation of human life respected.

We welcome your quick appointment of a commission of inquiry to investigate this incident. For this inquiry to help stem the already rising cycle of violence in southern Thailand, it must be – and be perceived to be – a credible and legitimate exercise, and not, as you publicly suggested, simply an effort to yield “lessons for the future.” The results of this commission of inquiry must be given greater weight than the conclusions of the government-appointed commission that investigated the killings at the Kruesi Mosque in southern Thailand in April. That commission found that the level of force and type of weapons used by security forces were “disproportionate to the threat posed by the militants,” but to date there has been no public accountability for those events.

Mr. Prime Minister, Thailand had made remarkable gains toward improved respect for human rights over the past decade. But during your tenure, Thailand has witnessed a growing disregard for the rule of law and human rights. Your government’s inadequate responses to previous human rights abuses have created an environment in which security forces trample the rule of law and violate human rights without fear of accountability. The predictable rise of a climate of impunity, and the resulting increase in violence, helped set the stage for the tragic deaths in southern Thailand this week. In order to counter this trend, you must move immediately to provide full accountability and respect for human rights throughout Thailand.

We look forward to your urgent attention to this grave matter,

Brad Adams
Executive Director, Asia Division
Human Rights Watch