Ethnic Malay Muslim villagers look on as victims of a mosque attack are buried in Thailand’s southern Narathiwat province, June 9, 2009. Unidentified gunmen killed 10 people and wounded 12 others when they opened fire at a mosque during evening prayers.

© 2009 Reuters

(New York) - Thai authorities should promptly and impartially investigate the massacre of 10 ethnic Malay Muslims at a mosque in southern Thailand and the retaliatory attacks on Buddhist monks and civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch urged all sides in the devastating conflict in the southern border provinces to end deliberate attacks on civilians.

On June 8, 2009, six masked gunmen dressed in black opened fire with M-16 assault rifles and shotguns on a crowd of worshipers as they were performing the evening prayer at Al-Furquan mosque in Ai Payae village of Narathiwat province's Joh Ai Rong district. Ten people died at the scene, including the imam. At least another 12 people were seriously wounded.

"The attack on the mosque was an act of coldly calculated brutality," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Tensions can only be resolved with a swift, impartial, and independent investigation that will bring the perpetrators to justice."

The identity and motives of the attackers are unknown. Several ethnic Malay Muslims from the region told Human Rights Watch that they believe Thai security forces targeted the Muslim community to avenge recent killings of Buddhist Thai civilians and officials by separatist insurgents. Over the past five years, both Thai security forces and insurgents have been implicated in attacks on civilians across the southern border provinces. Thai officials deny any involvement in the June 8 attack.

"Whoever was responsible for the June 8 massacre, the government and army have a lot of work to do to rebuild relations with the Muslim community," said Adams. "The widespread suspicion in the Muslim community shows how the failure to hold perpetrators accountable has led to deep distrust of the government."

In apparent retaliation for the Al-Furquan mosque massacre, separatist insurgents on June 10 rounded up and shot five Buddhist Thai construction workers in Yaha district of Yala province. One worker was killed at the scene, and two were critically injured. The gunmen left a leaflet saying, "You kill our innocent people. So we kill your people."

The next day, separatist insurgents shot dead a pregnant woman and her husband in Ja Nae district of Narathiwat province. On June 12, in Muang district of Yala province, one Buddhist monk was killed and another seriously wounded when separatist insurgents fired on them with AK-47 assault rifles; the monks had been collecting morning alms.

"Reprisal killings against civilians have absolutely no justification," said Adams. "Separatist insurgents are committing violence against civilians to scare Buddhist Thais away, keep ethnic Malay Muslims under control, discredit the Thai authorities, and provoke heavy-handed reactions from the security forces."

The recent surge of insurgent attacks has been characterized by extreme brutality against civilians. In the last month, four Buddhist Thai teachers have been killed, including Atcharaporn Thepsorn, who was eight-months pregnant. On May 20, two elderly Buddhist Thai women were shot and then burned to death in Panare district of Pattani province. On June 7, a car bomb believed to have been set by insurgents was detonated in the crowded center of Yi Ngo town, in Narathiwat province, killing one person and wounding 19.

To date, there have been no successful criminal prosecutions of members of Thai security forces for human rights violations in the conflict in the south. Such glaring impunity and injustice is evident in cases like the April 2004 attack on the Krue Se Mosque and the October 2004 Tak Bai killings, as well as numerous cases of arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings that have been documented by Human Rights Watch and others. While government reports have admitted many abuses, no one has been held accountable.

Frustration, alienation, and anger in the ethnic Malay Muslim community have been further fuelled by legislation that gives the security forces both extensive powers and near-blanket immunity for criminal misconduct and human rights violations.

"The new Thai government has said it will not tolerate further army abuses or discrimination against southern Muslims, but it is time for action, not just words," said Adams.

Continuing government rights violations and impunity in the southern border provinces provide a fertile ground for separatist insurgents to expand and radicalize. Although the separatist Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani (Patani Liberation Fighters) have suffered serious setbacks from counterinsurgency sweeps since June 2007, they still maintain their presence in more than 200 ethnic Malay Muslim villages. They use state-sponsored abuses and injustice to justify their campaign of violence and terror targeting the civilian population, both Buddhist Thais and ethnic Malay Muslims.

According to statistics from the Royal Thai Police, 3,029 civilians were killed in insurgent attacks from January 2004 to May 2009.

"Neither side in this devastating conflict pays enough attention to protecting the lives and rights of the local population," said Adams. "Civilians in the south are caught between a rock and a hard place, with increasingly brutal separatist insurgents on the one hand and abusive security forces on the other."