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(New York) – Separatist insurgents in Thailand's southern border provinces are committing war crimes by targeting children and other civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. The Thai government should address the cycle of deadly reprisals by investigating and prosecuting state security personnel implicated in abuses against ethnic Malay Muslims.  

On May 1, 2013, around 8:30 p.m., four insurgents opened fire with assault rifles at a group of villagers outside a grocery shop in Rusamilae sub-district, Muang district, in Pattani province. Two of the attackers then walked over to the victims and shot each of them point-blank in the head. More than 100 casings of M16, HK33, and AK-47 assault rifle bullets were found at the scene. A 2-year-old boy, Jakarin Hiangma, was killed along with his father and four other people.

“Separatist insurgents showed monstrous brutality when they shot a toddler and others point-blank with assault rifles,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Separatist leaders should publicly condemn all attacks against civilians and take steps to make sure that attacks on civilians never happen again.”

One day after the grocery shop shooting, leaflets signed by the Fatoni [Pattani] Fighter (also known as Pejuang Kemerdekaan Fatoni) insurgents in the loose network of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) movement, were circulated in local mosques, markets, and teashops. The message urged more deliberate attacks on civilians:

Fatoni Fighter brothers, we have avenged you. Four of us were killed. So we took back more [lives] in return. … Six dead bodies in Pattani is a lesson for the Siamese [Thais] to remember that we will kill them all. Children and women will not be spared. … We will do everything to make the Siamese accept our demands.

The stepped up campaign of terror against civilians, including children, may reflect the insurgents’ opposition to a peace agreement signed by BRN elder Hassan Taib on February 28. Under pressure from the Thai and Malaysian governments, the agreements states that negotiations will take place on the basis of the Thai constitution, which means abandoning the armed struggle for independence.

In a previous case, on March 8, four insurgents fired on a group of ethnic Thai Buddhist junior high school students while they were playing basketball in front of Sin Liang Chinese Association in Paluru sub-district, Su-Ngai Padi district in Narathiwat province. Tripat Waruni, 15, was seriously wounded in the hip. Children have also been harmed in unlawful insurgent attacks in commercial and residential areas. On March 21, 9-year-old Nisofian Nisani was killed and 14 people wounded when insurgents detonated a bomb hidden in front of an ice cream shop on Suwanmongkol Road in Muang district, Pattani province.

“Insurgents who explode bombs in urban areas that indiscriminately kill and maim civilians are committing war crimes, which deserve universal condemnation,” Adams said. “The perpetrators of these heinous crimes should be arrested and prosecuted.”

A recent government proposal to drop arrest warrants and criminal charges against suspected insurgents in order to build support for the peace process has raised serious concerns that Buddhist Thais in the southern border provinces may respond with vigilante “justice” attacks. On May 10, gunmen armed with AK-102 assault rifles – standard weapons of the Interior Ministry’s Volunteer Defense Corps militia – shot and killed suspected insurgent, Lukman Dorloh, and his 12-year-old brother, Muhammadpusao Dorloh, as they were traveling in a pickup truck on Ban Khok Wua-Ban Kurabi Road in Pattani province’s Kapo district. There are now widespread fears among the Thai Buddhist population that the killing of Lukman and his brother will set off a string of retaliatory attacks by insurgents.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned laws-of-war violations by separatist insurgents and Thai security forces in Thailand’s southern border provinces. The laws of war, also known as international humanitarian law, prohibit attacks on civilians or attacks that fail to discriminate between military personnel and civilians. Individuals who deliberately or recklessly commit serious violations of the laws of war are responsible for war crimes.

Claims by insurgents that attacks on civilians are justified because the civilians are part of the Thai Buddhist state or that their interpretation of Islamic law permits such attacks has no justification under international law. The laws of war also prohibit reprisal attacks and summary executions against civilians and captured combatants, mutilation of the dead, and attacks directed at civilians and civilian structures such as schools. Since the escalation of their military operations in January 2004, the insurgents have committed numerous such violations.

Human Rights Watch also remains deeply concerned by violations of human rights law and the laws of war by Thai government security forces and militias. Killings, enforced disappearances, and torture cannot be justified as reprisals for insurgent attacks on the Buddhist Thai population and security personnel. This situation has been reinforced by an entrenched culture of impunity for human rights violations by officials in the southern border provinces. The government has yet to successfully prosecute any officials or security force personnel for human rights abuses committed against ethnic Malay Muslims alleged to be involved in the insurgency.

To date, police have made no progress investigating the alleged vigilante attack at a teashop in Tanyong Limor sub-district of Narathiwat province’s Ra-ngae district, a known insurgent stronghold, on December 11, 2012. An 11-month-old girl, Ephani Samoh, was killed together with three other ethnic Malay Muslim villagers. A few hours later, insurgents stormed into Ban Ba Ngo School in Mayo district of Pattani province and shot dead two teachers, Tatiyarat Chueykaew and Somsak Kwanma, in front of many students in the school’s canteen.

“Attacks and impunity on both sides has become a common justification by both sides to carry out unlawful retaliation against civilians,” Adams said. “This vicious cycle is having a terrible impact on the people of all communities in southern Thailand. Only strong leadership from the Thai government, military, and insurgent leaders can bring this carnage to an end.”

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