(New York) - In their efforts to establish an independent state in Thailand’s southern border provinces, separatist groups are killing and mutilating civilians and attacking schools, community clinics, and Buddhist temples, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.
The 104-page report, “No One is Safe: Insurgent Attacks on Civilians in Thailand’s Southern Border Provinces,” details human rights abuses and violence committed against civilians by separatist militants in the predominantly ethnic Malay Muslim provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla from January 2004 to July 2007. The report is based on interviews with eyewitnesses, families of the victims, academics, journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders and government officials.
Moreover, the report includes firsthand accounts from members and militants of separatist groups in which they discuss their motivations and attempted justifications for the attacks.
“After decades of low-intensity insurgency, Thailand’s southern region is becoming the scene of a brutal armed conflict,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Separatist militants are intentionally targeting both Buddhist and Muslim civilians in shootings, bombings and machete attacks.”
Village-based militants called Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani (Patani Freedom Fighters) in the loose network of BRN-Coordinate (National Revolution Front-Coordinate) have now emerged as the backbone of the new generation of separatist militants. Increasingly, they claim that the southern border provinces are not the land of Buddhist Thais, but a religious “conflict zone” which must be divided between ethnic Malay Muslims and “infidels.” The separatists seek to forcibly liberate Patani Darulsalam (Islamic Land of Patani), from what they call a Buddhist Thai occupation.
Human Rights Watch found that separatist militants carried out more than 3,000 attacks on civilians from January 2004 to July 2007. At the same time, there were some 500 attacks targeting various military units and their personnel, and a similar number of attacks targeting police units and their personnel.
Of the 2,463 people killed in attacks during the past three-and-a-half half years, 2,196 (or 89 percent) were civilians. Buddhist Thais and ethnic Malay Muslims were killed in bomb attacks, shootings, assassinations, ambushes, and machete hackings. At least 29 victims have been beheaded and mutilated. There have been hundreds of militant attacks on teachers, schools, public health workers, hospital staff, and community health centers. For the first time in the region’s history of separatist insurgencies, Buddhist monks and novices are now among those killed and injured by separatist militants.
“Violence against civilians is being used by separatist militants to scare Buddhist Thais away from these provinces, keep ethnic Malay Muslims under control, and discredit the Thai authorities,” said Adams. “But it is illegal and morally indefensible to deliberately target civilians in any circumstances.”
Nit Jombadin, a Buddhist Thai, remembered that she was taking her 2-year-old daughter Napaswan to a food stall when a bomb went off in a busy market in Songkhla’s Saba Yoi district on May 28 – killing four people, and injuring 26 others:
“I was holding my daughter in my arms, talking to her and playing with her. As I was asking her what kind of jelly she wanted to buy, a bomb exploded behind us. I saw shrapnel ripped through her body. My daughter was killed instantly. I saw another little girl in school uniform lying not far from my daughter. She was dead too ... My daughter’s body was left lying on the road for many hours. I was crying my eyes out. I felt my heart stopped beating. How could they do this? ... The place was packed with children and parents after school ....”
Separatist militants are carrying out summary executions of civilians based on ethnicity. On March 14, a passenger van that ran between Yala and Songkhla was ambushed in Yala’s Yaha district. Supawan Sae Lu, who survived the attack that killed her 18-year-old daughter, and eight other passengers, recalled:
“The driver saw that the road was blocked. He tried to reverse the van back. But then there were armed men, armed with assault rifles and dressed in green, came out from the roadside. They announced that all Buddhists would be killed, and started shooting at us one by one. My daughter was trying to lean to me when she was shot in the head.”
Human Rights Watch also documented separatists’ attacks on ethnic Malay Muslims who collaborate with the Thai authorities, or oppose the operations of separatist militants. Those ethnic Malay Muslims are accused as munafig (hypocrites) or traitors, who have committed haram (forbidden sins) by betraying the radical blend of Malay nationalism and Islamist ideology. The victims are often religious leaders or parents who obstructed the recruitment or training of new members by separatist militants in their villages, or were known to be critical of the insurgency.
Usman Jaema, an ethnic Malay Muslim, told Human Rights Watch that his 15-year-old son was hacked with machetes and axes in January 2004 by separatist militants who wanted to send a message to him, as a village chief in Narathiwat’s Muang district, not to oppose their operation:
“There are around 10 Muslim youths in this village who join the militants. They have been trained to become guerilla fighters. They do not like me ... I never support these senseless killings. It is wrong to hurt innocent people, no matter who they are ... After the attack, my villagers look down on me. They said I could not protect my own son, then how could I be able to protect them? Some of them even said that it might be practical to give support to the militants to ensure their safety.”
A fundamental principle of the laws of war is the distinction between civilians and military objectives. The militants’ claim that the civilians attacked were part of a larger group (Buddhist Thais) with members involved in the hostilities offers no defense or justification for such a serious violation of those laws. Other militant claims, such as radical interpretations of Islamic law, equally lack any bearing under the laws of war. International humanitarian law explicitly prohibits many of the tactics used by the militants, including: reprisal attacks against civilians and captured combatants, summary execution of civilians or captured combatants, mutilation or other mistreatment of the dead, and attacks directed at civilian facilities such as homes, schools, temples, and public community clinics.
“Fear is rampant in southern Thailand, and violence has disrupted the lives of ordinary people in almost every way,” said Adams.
In response to militant attacks, the Thai government has imposed special security legislation – including the Executive Decree on Government Administration in Emergency Situations and martial law – and increased the number of regular and paramilitary troops to nearly 30,000 in the southern border provinces. In this context, the Thai security forces and police have carried out extrajudicial killings, “disappearances,” and arbitrary arrests of those known or suspected to be involved with separatist groups. Human Rights Watch documented many of these abuses in a March 2007 report. (To access the report, see "‘It Was Like Suddenly My Son No Longer Existed': Enforced Disappearances in Thailand's Southern Border Provinces,".)
The interim government of General Surayud Chulanont, installed after the military coup in September 2006, has signaled a new approach to the region's crisis. On November 2, Prime Minister Surayud offered a public apology to residents of the region, admitting that they held serious and legitimate grievances against the government. At the same time, he announced the re-establishment of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC) to help investigate complaints from the Muslim population concerning corrupt, abusive or inept government officials. But it remains unclear how the interim government will take concrete action to end state-sanctioned abuses and the culture of impunity in the south.
Human Rights Watch called on separatist groups and the Thai government to institute concrete measures to protect civilians and immediately cease all attacks that do not discriminate between combatants and civilians. In addition, separatist groups and the Thai authorities should permit independent, impartial and effective investigations into allegations of human rights abuses, and ensure that those found responsible be held accountable.
"Violations of human rights and ongoing impunity have increased the level of hostility and widened the communal gap between Buddhist Thais and ethnic Malay Muslims, making it impossible to achieve peaceful and lasting resolution to this brutal conflict," said Adams.