(New York) – The Thai government should immediately investigate and prosecute security personnel found responsible for the killing of an ethnic Malay Muslim child in southern Thailand.

On August 21, 2014, Unit 4916 of the Taharn Pran, an army-trained and equipped paramilitary unit, shot dead 14-year-old Muhammad-Azuwan Sohoh while he was riding his motorcycle past their camp in Sri Sakorn district in Narathiwat province. A police investigation found that a Unit 4916 member, Aekapot Samansuan, had planted an 11 mm pistol in Muhammad-Azuwan’s hand after the shooting to fabricate evidence that the boy was an insurgent.

“The Thai government faces a clear-cut test on whether it will arrest and prosecute those responsible for the killing of a Malay Muslim teenager,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “A failure to act decisively will further fuel perceptions in the Muslim community that the Thai security forces are untouchable and can commit abuses with impunity.”

On August 29, Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took power after the May 22 military coup, publicly vowed that he would act on any credible evidence of abuses and initiate prosecutions of abusive troops in the restive southern border provinces. The government’s response to the killing of Muhammad-Azuwan puts the seriousness of that pledge at stake, Human Rights Watch said. To date, the government has regularly failed its duty to discipline and appropriately prosecute security personnel who commit human rights violations.

Thai authorities defended the actions of Unit 4916, asserting in a news conference on September 5 that Taharn Pran soldiers were acting in self-defense against what they perceived was an insurgent attack. Meanwhile, the army and the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center gave 500,000 baht (US$15,400) in compensation to Muhammad-Azuwan’s family. But providing compensation does not absolve the government from its responsibility to prosecute officials responsible for an unlawful killing, Human Rights Watch said. To date, the authorities have taken no disciplinary action against Aekapot or other members of Unit 4916.

More Child Deaths, Shootings of Unarmed Civilians
Regular military units have also been implicated in the apparent use of excessive force resulting civilian deaths and injuries. On October 23, Thai Marines opened fire on a pickup truck at a checkpoint in Hutaeyulo village of Narathiwat province’s Bajoh district, killing 10-year-old Hizula Taemoh. The girl’s father, mother, and younger sister were wounded in the truck, which was bringing the family to the local market to sell coconuts. Military radio networks reported the shooting as an insurgent attack on civilians. After local Muslim community members contradicted that account and pressed for an impartial investigation, the Marine commander said on October 26 that troops at the checkpoint said they believed there were insurgents inside the truck and opened fire to stop it from getting away.

Thai security personnel have committed many lethal shootings of unarmed civilians in the southern border provinces over the past 10 years. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the Thai government to instruct its security forces that are carrying out policing functions to comply with the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The Basic Principles state that all law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall as far as possible apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The legitimate objective should be achieved with minimal damage and injury, and preservation of human life respected.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the Thai government to repeal the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations, enforced 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 of proof is placed on the complainant to demonstrate 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 contributes to an atmosphere in which Thai security personnel show little regard for human rights and secessionist insurgents have committed numerous atrocities.

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 more than 6,000 lives. Civilians have accounted for approximately 90 percent of those deaths. To date, not a single member of the Thai security forces has been criminally prosecuted for serious rights abuses in the south. Meanwhile, the Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani insurgents in the loose network of BRN-Coordinate (National Revolution Front-Coordinate) regularly attack both government officials and civilians.

“The Thai government should wake up to the fact that attempts to cover up misconduct of its security units and protect them from criminal responsibility fans the flames of violent reprisals,” Adams said. “Insurgents have repeatedly used the impunity of government forces to justify brutal attacks on civilians.”