Muslim villagers pray during a funeral after gunmen killed 10 people and wounded 12 others during evening prayers at a mosque on June 8, 2009 in Thailand’s southern Narathiwat province.

© 2009 Reuters

(New York) - Thailand's prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, needs to demonstrate progress in prosecuting security personnel for serious rights violations in the southern border provinces, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a November 29, 2009 speech, Abhisit assured the nation that Thai authorities would balance counterinsurgency operations with unbiased justice. But because there has been no serious effort to hold perpetrators of abuses in the southern border provinces to account, many ethnic Malay Muslims in that region have told Human Rights Watch that they questioned the prime minister's sincerity. For instance, the authorities have yet to arrest pro-government militia implicated in the massacre inside Al-Furquan mosque in Joh Ai Rong district, Narathiwat province on June 8.

"The failure to arrest and prosecute those responsible for the Al-Furquan mosque massacre has made Abhisit's promises about justice ring hollow," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This fuels suspicions in the Muslim community that the gunmen are untouchable."

A police investigation found that gunmen from pro-government militia units carried out the attack at Al-Furquan mosque, killing 10 ethnic Malay Muslims and wounding 12 others. It took two months for Narathiwat police to issue an arrest warrant for Suthirak Khongsuwan, whom they believe led the attack.

Suthirak, a former member of the Taharn Pran (army paramilitary volunteers), has also been implicated in many killings of ethnic Malay Muslims in southern border provinces over the past two years. Police said the other gunmen included members of the Aor Ror Bor (army-trained village defense volunteers) in Narathiwat province. Police say that they have been unable to locate Suthirak or any of the other suspects.

Despite the police findings and Abhisit's assurances, senior officers in the Fourth Army Region, which is responsible for the southern border provinces, and the army-run Internal Security Operations Command have misled the investigations. They contend that the massacre was an attack by insurgent groups or the result of local disputes among villagers.

The Abhisit government has made no progress in other serious cases of human rights violations involving Thai security forces. For instance, there has been no development in the criminal prosecution of soldiers from the army's 39thTaskforce, who allegedly tortured and murdered Imam Yapa Kaseng in Rue Soh district, Narathiwat province, on March 21, 2008.

In February the Office of Attorney General decided not to press charges against soldiers and police officers implicated in killings at the Krue Se mosque on April 28, 2004. And the Songkhla provincial court ruled on May 29 that Thai security forces were not responsible for the deaths of 78 ethnic Malay Muslim protesters in Tak Bai on October 25, 2004. Attempts by human rights groups and families of the victims to seek justice in other less publicized cases have faced various obstructions.

Frustration, alienation, and anger in the ethnic Malay Muslim community have been further fuelled by the enforcement of the draconian 2005 Emergency Decree on Government Administration in Emergency Situations (Emergency Decree), which gives security forces both extensive powers and near-blanket immunity for criminal misconduct and human rights violations.

Although the separatist Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani (Patani Liberation Fighters) have suffered serious setbacks from government counterinsurgency sweeps, they still maintain a presence in more than 200 villages in the southern border provinces. Over the past five months, a wave of car and motorcycle bombs, targeting Buddhist Thai civilians and government officials, has created a climate of fear in the southern border provinces. Insurgent groups have also carried out drive-by shootings and arson attacks. Three Buddhist Thais have been burned to death since the Al-Furquan mosque massacre. Insurgents left behind leaflets saying these killings were in retaliation for abuses against ethnic Malay Muslims by Thai security forces.

Since an outbreak of insurgent violence began in the border provinces in January 2004, more than 3,700 people have been killed.

"A serious government effort to deliver justice is needed to bring an end to the ghastly abuses committed by both pro-government militias and insurgent groups," Pearson said.

Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia is scheduled to travel to Thailand's southern border provinces during his official visit to Thailand from December 7 to December 9. In September 2005, when Najib was deputy prime minister, he said that if Thailand wanted bilateral cooperation to help improve the situation in the southern border provinces, it would have to show respect for the human rights of ethnic Malay Muslims and treat them according to the rule of law. Improving protection of human rights of both ethnic Malay Muslims and Buddhist Thais should be high on the agenda during this visit, Human Rights Watch said.

Government sources in the nascent political dialogue between Thai authorities and exiled leaders of insurgent Malay Muslim groups said that the lack of progress on justice issues despite Abhisit's promises make it very difficult for them to push peace efforts forward.

"Abhisit is famous for saying the right things," Pearson said. "But it is now time for action, not words, if he really wants to improve situation in the south."