(London) - Separatist insurgent groups in southern Thailand must stop targeting civilians in their effort to establish an independent state, Human Rights Watch said today. In the past week alone, insurgents have killed and injured more than 30 civilians in targeted attacks in the country’s southern provinces.

“Insurgent groups are targeting civilians to show their power and highlight the Thai government’s weakness,” said Brad Adams, director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “But it’s illegal, and morally indefensible, to attack civilians in pursuit of political goals.”

On November 12, a Buddhist man was shot dead and his wife was critically wounded in an insurgent attack in Rusoh district of Narathiwat province. On the same day, a drive-by shooting at a roadside teashop in the same district killed Sofi Tohlooboh, 30, and seriously injured his brother, Mahama Tohlooboh. On November 11, Sa-aree Yosoh, a 59-year-old deputy village chief, was gunned down near his house. On November 9, eight bombs exploded simultaneously at car and motorcycle showrooms in Yala province, injuring 13 people. On the same day four civilians were shot dead in separate attacks in Pattani province. A day earlier, armed insurgents in Pattani killed two Buddhist villagers before burning down their house. Six people were wounded when bombs went off at three karaoke bars in Narathiwat’s Tak Bai district on November 5.

Human Rights Watch expressed deep concern about the enormous and growing numbers of attacks by insurgent groups on civilians since the renewal of violence in southern Thailand in January 2004.

According to a study released by the Thai Journalist Association and Prince of Songkhla University, insurgent groups are responsible for most of the 5,460 violent incidents in the southern border provinces of Thailand between January 2004 and August 2006 which resulted in 1,730 deaths and 2,513 injuries. Civilians – including government employees and local officials – have been the principal targets of daily attacks, totaling 60 percent (or 1,873) of the victims, followed by police (16 percent, or 481), soldiers (12 percent, or 373), and others (12 percent, or 369).

The study found that the majority of victims were Muslims; 924 Muslims were killed and 718 injured, compared with 697 Buddhists killed and 1,474 injured. The religion of the remaining victims is unknown.

“The insurgents claim to be defenders of the Muslim population against abuses and exploitation at the hands of the mainly Buddhist Thai authorities,” said Adams. “But hundreds of Muslims as well as Buddhists have died in their attacks.”

Common insurgent tactics include drive-by shootings from motorcycles or pickup trucks and the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The use of such devices, apparently emulating tactics used by insurgents in Iraq, has increased the intensity and lethality of attacks on civilians since June 2006. Human Rights Watch has documented disturbing evidence that insurgent groups have engaged in beheadings and in mutilation of corpses as a form of punishment of Buddhist and Muslim civilians suspected of being informants, or of collaborating with Thai authorities.

At least 17 victims have been beheaded, and more than 40 Buddhists and Muslims have been hacked to death with machetes, over the past two years.

There have been hundreds of insurgent attacks on teachers and schools since January 2004. Some districts have shut down all government schools due to security concerns after attacks. Buddhist monks in Narathiwat decided to stop taking alms after a bomb ripped through a column of monks, along with the soldiers guarding them, on October 22. That was the latest in a series of attacks on Buddhist monks, —including shootings, bombings and hacking with machetes. On November 8, the entire Buddhist population from three villages in Yala’s Than To and Bannang Sata districts fled their homes and sought refuge at a Buddhist temple after armed insurgents killed Boon Iamsa-ard, 68, and his daughter Aree Iamnirand, 28, and then burned down their house.

Since the new spate of violence began in 2004, insurgent attacks have become increasingly coordinated and targeted against civilians. On September 16 insurgents targeted department stores and related locations in Hat Yai district of Songkhla province, killing four civilians and injuring 59. Another series of coordinated explosions took place on August 31, targeting commercial banks in Yala. On June 15 and 16, insurgent groups launched a series of bombs attacks in 31 of 33 districts in the southern border provinces.

“Increasingly, insurgent violence is being used to scare away Buddhists and keep Muslims under control,” said Adams.

Daily violence and a climate of fear have seriously disrupted the lives of ordinary people. Many Buddhists and Muslims close businesses and stop working on Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer, after insurgent groups issued an order to do so last year. Muslim families have been pressured to support insurgent activities, whether providing supplies and sanctuary or giving up their children to the youth wing (pemuda) and guerilla units (Runda Kumpulan Kecil or RKK) of the National Revolution Front-Coordinate (Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinasi or BRN-C) in order to take part in the uprising against Thai authorities. Insurgent groups are coordinated within the structure of BRN-C.

In response to insurgent attacks, the Thai authorities have carried out extrajudicial killings, “disappearances,” and arbitrary arrests. The Thai government has imposed special security legislation, including the Executive Decree on Government Administration in Emergency Situations and martial law, and increased militarization in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces.

The interim government of General Surayud Chulanont, installed after the military coup in September, has signaled a new approach to the south. On November 2, Surayud offered a public apology to residents of the south, admitting that they held serious and legitimate grievances against the government. At the same time, he announced the re-establishment of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC) to help investigate complaints from the Muslim population concerning corrupt, abusive or inept government officials. But it remains unclear how the interim government will take concrete action to end state-sanctioned abuses and the culture of impunity in the south.

“The Thai government must address abuses by its own forces and show good faith to the people trapped between violent and abusive insurgents and government forces,” said Adams. “The new government must act quickly if it wants to win the trust of people in the south.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Thai government and insurgent groups to institute concrete measures to protect civilians and immediately cease all attacks that do not discriminate between combatants and civilians. In addition, Thai authorities and insurgent groups should permit independent, impartial and effective investigations of allegations of human rights abuses, and ensure that those found responsible be held accountable.

“Neither side in the conflict in Thailand’s southern border provinces pays enough attention to human rights issues,” said Adams. “The failure to address human rights concerns adds to the growing hostility, making peaceful conflict resolution through dialogue an impossible goal.”