(New York) – Separatist insurgents in Thailand’s southern border provinces killed two Buddhist monks in an unlawful assault on a temple, Human Rights Watch said today. The deliberate attack on civilians and a place of worship is a war crime.

Separatist insurgents in Thailand’s Narathiwat province attacked Wat Rattanaphab temple on January 18, 2019, and killed two Buddhist monks, including the temple’s abbot Phra Khru Prachote Rattanarak, and wounded two others. 

© 2018 Private

On January 18, 2019, at about 8:30 p.m., a group of apparent ethnic Malay insurgents attacked Wat Rattananupab temple in Su Ngai Padi district of Narathiwat province, killing two Buddhist monks and wounding two others. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch they saw armed men arrive on motorcycles, open fire with assault rifles at the temple, and then storm inside and shoot the monks at point-blank range. Among those killed was the temple’s abbot, Phra Khru Prachote Rattananurak (real name, Sawang Vethmaha).

“The ghastly attack on Buddhist monks by insurgents in Thailand’s deep south is morally reprehensible and a war crime, and those responsible should be held to account,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The insurgents’ 15-year campaign of deliberately attacking Buddhist and Muslim civilians can’t be justified.”

The attack followed a pattern consistent with other insurgent attacks, and heightened fears in Su Ngai Padi district and other parts of the four southern border provinces. Thai authorities have instructed all Buddhist monks in Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and Songkhla provinces to stay inside temples and cease their daily morning routine of collecting alms.

Since the outbreak of armed insurgency in January 2004, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) insurgents have targeted Buddhist temples and monks, which they consider emblematic of the Thai Buddhist state’s occupation of ethnic Malay Muslim territory. At least 23 monks have been killed and more than 20 wounded. The insurgents have also targeted security personnel assigned to provide monks safe passage to and from the temples.

The laws of war, also known as international humanitarian law, prohibit attacks on civilians and civilian objects, including houses of worship, or attacks that fail to discriminate between combatants and civilians. The laws of war provide no justification for insurgent claims that attacks on civilians are lawful because those targeted are part of the Thai Buddhist state or that Islamic law, as they interpret it, permits such attacks.

The laws of war also explicitly prohibit tactics frequently used by BRN insurgents, including reprisals and summary executions against civilians and captured combatants, mutilation or other mistreatment of the dead, and attacks directed at civilian facilities. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned such laws-of-war violations by the insurgents.

Despite a peace dialogue between the Thai government and separatist groups under the umbrella of Majlis Syura Patani (Mara Patani), BRN insurgents have not ceased attacks on civilian targets.

Thai government security forces and militias have also committed numerous violations of the laws of war and international human rights law against Malay Muslim civilians and suspected BRN members. Extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture cannot be justified as reprisals for insurgent attacks.

The situation has been exacerbated by an entrenched culture of impunity for abuses by officials in the southern border provinces. The government has not successfully prosecuted any officials for crimes against ethnic Malay Muslims alleged to be involved in the insurgency. Human rights defenders and lawyers have faced intimidation, threats, and criminal libel charges after alleging abuses by Thai security forces.

“Both Muslims and Buddhists in southern Thailand are caught in the cycle of abuses and reprisals by insurgents and Thai security forces,” Adams said. “The Thai government needs to prosecute the atrocities by its own forces as well as those by the insurgents if this horrific violence is to stop.”