(New York) – The Thai government has yet to bring to justice police and military personnel responsible for the deaths of scores of protesters in Tak Bai in southern Thailand in 2004.

On October 25, 2004, army and police units fired on ethnic Malay Muslim protesters in the Tak Bai district of Narathiwat province, killing seven. Another 78 protesters suffocated or were crushed to death while being transported to an army camp in Pattani province. The military detained more than 1,200 people for several days without appropriate medical attention, and a number of severely injured protesters lost their limbs. In August 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that security personnel were blameless because they had only been performing their duties.

“Thailand’s failure to prosecute security personnel responsible for the Tak Bai killings is a glaring injustice that brings the police, military, and courts into disrepute,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Thai authorities’ failure to deliver justice to southern Muslims has fueled conditions for the insurgency in the deep south.”

On December 17, 2004, a fact-finding committee appointed by the then-government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra concluded that the methods used in dispersing the protesters— including firing live ammunition and deploying army conscripts and rangers inexperienced in dispersing protesters—were inappropriate and not in conformity with established international guidelines and practices. The committee also found that commanding officers failed to supervise the transportation of protesters in custody, leaving the task to be performed by inexperienced, low-ranking personnel. The inquiry identified three senior army officers as having failed to properly monitor and supervise the military’s operations, leading to the deaths and injuries of protesters.  

Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has said that military-imposed government will resume dialogues with separatist groups, but he has not addressed abuses against ethnic Malay Muslims. While he was army commander-in-chief, Prayuth often told human rights activists and journalists that the Thai public should not be reminded about the Tak Bai killings.

Human Rights Watch repeatedly recommended to Thai authorities that making a demonstrable commitment to holding abusive officials accountable was crucial for addressing unrest in the southern border provinces. Previous Thai governments have provided financial compensation and other reparations to some Tak Bai victims and their families. However, assisting some victims does not relieve the authorities of their legal obligation to prosecute those responsible for unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and other abuses in the southern border provinces, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch also urged the Thai government to repeal the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations, in place in the southern border provinces since July 2005. Section 17 of the decree provides immunity from criminal, civil, and disciplinary liability for officials acting under the decree. The burden is placed on the complainant to prove that the officials in question did not act in good faith, or acted in a discriminatory and unreasonable manner.

The cycle of human rights abuses and impunity in Thailand contributes to an atmosphere in which state security personnel show less regard for the civilian population and abusive insurgents commit ever greater atrocities, Human Rights Watch said. Since January 2004, Thailand’s southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat have been the scene of a brutal internal armed conflict that has claimed over 6,000 lives. Civilians have accounted for approximately 90 percent of those deaths. The Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani insurgents in the loose network of BRN-Coordinate (National Revolution Front-Coordinate) regularly attack both government officials and civilians.

“What happened in Tak Bai 10 years ago must not be forgotten,” Adams said. “Delivering justice for the victims of this massacre is an important step to ending atrocities and respecting the rights of the southern Muslim community.”