(London) - The Thai government’s growing reliance on abusive militias for security as it fights a growing insurgency in the southern provinces places civilians at increasing risk, Human Rights Watch said today.
On April 9, government-backed village defense volunteers in Ban Pakdi village of Yala province’s Ban Nang Sta district fired on a crowd of Muslim funeral goers, killing four students and injuring at least five other people. The incident occurred after Unit 4202 of the Army rangers, an army-trained and equipped paramilitary force, fired on a civilian vehicle in Ban Ta Seh village of Yala’s Muang district on March 9, killing Abukari Kasoh, a 15-year-old student, and seriously wounding his brother-in-law, Afandi Pohma.
“These cases of deadly use of force show how dangerous it is for the government to arm and deploy poorly trained militia forces,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “Villagers in southern Thailand have a right to defend themselves from attacks by insurgents, but we’ve seen examples from around the world of how ill-disciplined volunteer militias use weapons improperly and set off a vicious cycle of reprisal attacks against civilians.”
The government of General Surayud Chulanont, which was installed after the military staged a coup d’état last September, has significantly stepped up its use of paramilitary Army rangers and village defense volunteers to face the growing challenge posed by separatist groups in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim southern provinces.
Over the past month, insurgents have increased their attacks across Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces. They allegedly burned more than 10 government schools and bombed markets and shops owned by Buddhists. They have murdered Buddhists, as well as Muslims working with Thai authorities. The victims in two cases, Patcharaporn Boonsamas (aged 25) from Yala and Thongme Maiman (aged 70) from Narathiwat, were shot and then burned to death.
In response, the government this year has recruited nearly 3,000 local volunteers, some from the families of Buddhists and Muslims killed or injured by insurgents, to join the 30 newly formed Army ranger companies.
The Army has defended the actions of the militias, asserting that the village defense volunteers in Ban Pakdi in April were acting within their right to self-defense against what they saw as angry protesters. The victims of the April 9 incident were mourners returning on pickup trucks from a funeral for a local Muslim politician, Buraheng Puna, who had been killed earlier that day. The shooting occurred after a tense confrontation between angry funeral-goers, who believed that Thai security forces were behind Puna’s murder, and a group of Buddhist village defense volunteers manning the security checkpoint in Ban Pakdi. The village defense volunteers were attacked with sticks and rocks before they opened fire on the crowd with shotguns.
In the March 9 Ban Ta Seh shootings, the Army claimed that the rangers shot at a pickup truck during hot pursuit of insurgents. Before the incident, an outpost of rangers in that area was attacked hit-and-run style by seven gunmen on a pickup truck. According to an Army spokesman, troops from Unit 4202 of the rangers were trying to stop the escaping gunmen. They opened fire with AK-47 rifles when they saw a pickup truck heading towards them from the direction where the first attack took place. However, there has been no independent evidence to show that Abukar and Afandi were involved in the earlier attack on the rangers.
After the shooting witnesses reported that rangers, some of whom were drunk, broke into Ponoh Ta Seh Islamic boarding school. After teachers and students tried to explain that the two youths shot were not insurgents and had already been sent to the hospital, some rangers started shooting into the male dormitory area. They ordered male students to come out of school buildings, take their shirts off, and sit with their faces to the ground. The rangers verbally abused the students and spat at, kicked and hit some of them in the head.
“Thai authorities have a duty to discipline and, where necessary, prosecute Army rangers and any other irregular forces that commit abuses,” said Adams. “It should start by conducting a credible and transparent investigation into the killings by paramilitary forces in Ban Pakdi and Ban Ta Seh.”
Units from regular Army forces have also been implicated in the use of excessive force. On April 13, soldiers shot dead three unarmed Muslim boys, aged 13 and 14, in Ban Bana village of Pattani province’s Muang district. A group of soldiers from Taskforce 2 of the Army in Pattani was chasing insurgents who had burned down mobile phone cell stations in nearby villages. One of the survivors told Human Rights Watch that he and his friends were playing on the roadside when heavily armed soldiers arrived in Humvees in Ban Bana village. He and his friends ran away because they were scared. They tried to hide in the bushes. But the soldiers allegedly shot them without warning with rifles, which the witness identified as US-made M16s. Muslim community leaders have pressed the government to investigate and prosecute those responsible.
“The Thai government must understand that any attempt to cover up the misconduct of its security units or to protect them from criminal responsibility could set off a cycle of killings and reprisals,” Adams said. “The impunity of government forces has become the most common justification used by insurgents to carry out retaliatory attacks on civilians.”
Human Rights Watch urged the government to instruct its forces to comply with the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The Basic Principles state that all law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall as far as possible apply nonviolent 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.