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(New York) – Alleged insurgents were responsible for detonating three bombs at a nighttime entertainment area in Thailand’s southern Narathiwat province that killed five civilians and wounded 118, Human Rights Watch said today. Violence in southern Thailand has claimed the lives of more than 4,700 people in the past seven years.

The September 16, 2011 bombings, in Narathiwat’s Sungai Kolok district, utilized methods typically employed by ethnic Malay Muslim insurgent groups in southern Thailand who seek a separate Muslim state, Human Rights Watch said. Three bombs exploded at 15- to 30-minute intervals, and police defused a fourth. The later bombs may have been planted and timed to target security and medical personnel rushing to the scene of the first attack, Human Rights Watch said.

“Insurgents who bomb nightspots know they will kill and maim numerous civilians,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is not armed struggle but a sickening crime.”

The first bomb, concealed in a motorcycle left outside an ethnic Chinese association, exploded at about 6:40 p.m. A second motorcycle bomb exploded approximately 15 minutes later, 300 meters away, in front of a karaoke bar. A third bomb exploded in a car approximately 20 to 30 minutes later opposite the nearby Merlin Hotel. Police found and defused a fourth bomb hidden in a motorcycle in the area.

Thailand’s southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat have been the scene of brutal armed conflict over the past seven years. Since January 2004, ethnic Malay Muslim separatist groups have carried out thousands of attacks on police and other civilians. Most of the victims have been ethnic Thai Buddhists, but may have been ethnic Malay Muslims perceived to be “collaborating” with the government. According to police statistics, civilians make up more than 90 percent of the 4,700-plus deaths since 2004.
As detailed in Human Rights Watch’s 2007 report “No One Is Safe”, insurgent groups have used violence to try to drive ethnic Thai Buddhist populations out of predominantly Malay areas, while keeping ethnic Malay Muslims under control and discrediting Thai authorities. The Patani Freedom Fighters (Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani), separatist insurgents in the loose network of National Revolution Front-Coordinate (BRN-Coordinate), have suffered setbacks from security sweeps but still maintain a presence in hundreds of ethnic Malay Muslim villages in southern Thailand. The group continues to cite abuses and heavy-handed tactics by government forces to justify their attacks. Some insurgent cells have merged with underground cartels involved in drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and human trafficking across the Thai-Malaysian border, adding to the thriving criminality in the southern border provinces.

Amidst the surge of violence against civilians, separatist insurgents appear to have stepped up attacks on teachers in government-run schools, whom they see as symbols of a state effort to undermine ethnic Malay Muslim identities. On September 6, a teacher named Kanit Lamnui was shot dead as he was returning home from an English language tutorial at Ban Kor Meng School in Yala province’s Raman district. The assailants then poured gasoline on his body and set it on fire. In August, two teachers were shot dead in Pattani province, and another was seriously wounded in three separate attacks, which appear to have been carried out by separatist insurgents. More than 150 teachers and educational officials have been killed in insurgency-related violence in the past seven years.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned abuses by insurgents in southern Thailand.

Insurgent groups have at times claimed that attacking Thai Buddhist civilians is justified, contending that the violence in southern Thailand amounts to an armed conflict in which the Thai Buddhist population is subject to attack. This position is not supported by international law. Under applicable laws of war, civilians may not be targeted nor labeled combatants en masse, and can only be attacked in limited circumstances in which they are directly participating in hostilities.

Human Rights Watch said it was also concerned about violations by government forces combating insurgent violence. Thailand’s new prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, recently announced that special attention would be given to improving the situation in the southern border provinces. On September 13, the government announced that the existing state of emergency in the southern provinces would be extended a further three months. As detailed in an August letter, Human Rights Watch urged the Thai government to take all appropriate steps to ensure public safety with full respect for human rights standards and due process of law.

“Prime Minister Yingluck’s special attention to the south needs to do more than extend a state of emergency that encouraged government abuses,” said Adams. “Unless real action is taken to rein in the security forces and punish perpetrators, the abuses will continue.”

Human Rights Watch repeated its call for investigations into abuses by the Thai security forces and pro-government militias, who in the past have committed reprisals against ethnic Malay Muslims following insurgent attacks.

“Insurgents falsely claim that abuses by Thai security forces justify their attacks on civilians – the Thai government should not allow its forces to adopt the same logic,” Adams said. “Government attempts to protect abusive security personnel will only intensify the cycle of reprisals.”

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