(New York) - The killing of a prominent Muslim women's rights activist by alleged separatist insurgents is a major setback to ending violence in Thailand's southern border provinces, Human Rights Watch said today.
On March 12, 2009, an eyewitness saw an insurgent fatally shoot Laila Paaitae Daoh, a prominent Muslim women's rights activist and peace advocate, in broad daylight in Krongpenang district, Yala province. She was rushed to Yala Hospital Center, but died of her wounds the next day. Laila and her family had long received threats and had been targets of insurgent attacks. Alleged insurgents killed her eldest son in 2004 and her husband and second son in 2006.
The killing of Laila followed the March 7 shooting and burning of two Buddhist civilians in Pattani province. In addition to daily shootings and bombings, insurgents have allegedly committed at least five beheadings of civilians and security personnel since the beginning of this year.
"Laila's brutal murder is part of ongoing efforts by insurgents to intimidate and attack Muslims who oppose insurgency or have supported Thai authorities," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Her death is a serious loss for those trying to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in the south."
Insurgents in government-declared "red zones" in the southern border provinces have in recent years used violence and terror to try to keep other Muslims under their control. In Mu 1 village of Tambon Purong, Krongpenang district, Yala province, where Laila lived, villagers were warned not to work with Thai authorities and not to accept food or other assistance from the government.
Despite these pressures, Laila promoted coexistence between ethnic Malay Muslims and Buddhist Thais. Her eldest son was a village chief, while her husband and second son worked as volunteers with local authorities. She and her family actively advocated the belief that justice and well-being for ethnic Malay Muslims could be sought peacefully through human rights and judicial mechanisms instead of armed struggle. Laila was also instrumental in activities of the Women and Peace Group and Luk Riang, a prominent child rights group, in the southern border provinces.
For years, Laila and her family had received death threats from insurgents, who accused the family of being munafig (hypocrites) or Muslims who have sided with the occupying forces of infidels. Since Laila's death, her sister has received repeated phone calls from anonymous men, who said in the local Malay dialect: "Die. Die. Die." These calls continued through March 17.
"The killings of Paaitae Daoh family members were undoubtedly meant as punishment and as a warning to other Muslims," said Adams. "In this way, the insurgents spread fear throughout the southern Muslim community."
The Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani (Patani Liberation Fighters) insurgents, separatists in the loose network of BRN-Coordinate (National Revolution Front-Coordinate), maintain a presence in more than 200 Muslim villages despite having suffered major losses from counterinsurgency operations. The insurgents make use of abuses by government security forces and heavy-handed tactics to recruit and radicalize supporters. The Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani insurgents have been implicated in thousands of deadly attacks over the past five years. Most of their victims have been civilians.
Human Rights Watch said that human rights groups in the southern border provinces have also been targeted by Thai security forces. The latest such incident took place on February 8, when about 20 soldiers and police in Pattani province raided the office of the Working Group for Peace and Justice (WGPJ), a nongovernmental human rights organization. After taking photos of documents and materials found in the office, the officers spent a long time inspecting data in the organization's computers, which contained details about victims and witnesses, and other sensitive information.
Since the outbreak of violence in the southern border provinces in January 2004, a number of human rights defenders have been harassed, arrested, tortured, "disappeared," and murdered, allegedly by the security forces. None of these cases has been successfully investigated to bring the perpetrators to justice.
"Thai authorities in the south should stop harassing human rights groups," said Adams. "Raids on activists' offices undercut Prime Minister Abhisit's commitment to make justice and human rights integral to resolving the conflict."
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned violations of the laws of war by both sides in the southern border provinces. A fundamental principle of the laws of war is the distinction between civilians and military objectives. The insurgents claim that the civilians attacked were part of the Buddhist Thai state, which is participating in the hostilities. But the laws of war allow no such defense or justification for attacks on civilians. The laws of war explicitly prohibit tactics used by the insurgents such as reprisal attacks against civilians, summary execution of civilians or captured combatants, mutilation or other mistreatment of the dead, and attacks directed at civilian facilities.