Amnesty International has accused insurgents in Southern Thailand of deliberately targeting civilians, saying the killings amount to war crimes.
A new report by the London-based human rights group said militants in Thailand's southern-most provinces are increasingly seeking out 'soft' civilian targets, such as teachers, civil servants and farmers.
Since 2004, insurgents have been waging a violent campaign against in Thailand's southern provinces. While most of the country is ethnically Thai and culturally Buddhist, the residents of the Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala provinces are mostly Malay Muslim and retain their own identity.
Geographically, the area is just north of Malaysia, and historically the region was a Malay sultanate until it was annexed by Thailand in the early 20th century. Militant groups view the Thais as foreign occupiers.
Estimates of the violence vary, but most agree the insurgency has claimed some 5,000 lives, with many more injured.
According to Amnesty International, two-thirds of those killed in the conflict were civilians, the majority of them Malay Muslims whom insurgents accused of collaborating with the government, or who refused to cooperate with the militants.
“The insurgents seem to be attacking many of the very people on whose behalf they are ostensibly fighting, destroying their lives and livelihoods,” said Donna Guest, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Director.
“Whatever their grievances, they do not justify this serious and systematic violation of international law.”
But the Amnesty report also criticised Thailand's efforts to end the crisis. Amnesty spent nine months interviewing witnesses and survivors of attacks as well as members of the Thai security forces. Its conclusion is that there is fault on both sides.
Thai security forces in the region have been accused of human rights violations, such as abuse and torturing of detainees. In October 2004, 78 people arrested after a protest died in custody after suffocating inside tightly packed trucks.
Amnesty says such violations have never been properly investigated, which serves to fuel the sense of injustice and add impetus to the armed conflict.
“The region is still characterized by a culture of official impunity. All unlawful killings, including those allegedly by security forces, must be independently investigated and acted upon,” Guest added.
“It is ultimately the Thai government’s responsibility to ensure the well-being of all Thai citizens. As a matter of international law—and as repeatedly demonstrated by experience in Thailand and around the world—any counter-insurgency strategy must have a strong human rights component."
PDF: "They took nothing but his life": Unlawful killings in Thailand's southern insurgency [Amnesty International, 27 Sep 2011]
Report: Thailand rebels deliberately target civilians - Amnesty [BBC News, 27 Sep 2011]
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra back-tracked on her party's campaign pledge to establish a special administrative zone in the troubled southern provinces.
When the Pheu Thai party was campaigning for votes earlier this year, they tried to gain support in Thailand’s deep south among people who have not traditionally supported them. Ms. Yingluck's party is unpopular in the south because of violent crackdowns that occurred during her brother Thaksin's rule.
Ahead of the elections, the Pheu Thai party offered to make the three southern border provinces a special administrative zone. But Ms. Yingluck now says the government has no plan to grant special status to the provinces.
"This is partly because [the Pheu Thai party] did not get a single seat in the Deep South," said Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat from the International Crisis Group. "And they probably don't see any political points they would gain by pushing forward this policy."
But although it may not be politically advantageous for Pheu Thai, some analysts argue allowing the south more say in running its own affairs may help quell the seven-year insurgency.
The new Thai government has confirmed some plans to address the violence, such as creating a new centre for coordinating and integrating policies and operations in the south. But critics say improving coordination among various agencies will do little to end the violence if the bureaucracy's overall policy remains the same.
Analysis: Thai Government Shelves Autonomy for Deep South as Violence Continues [VOA, 28 Sep 2011]
This week saw a new wave of violence in the region. On Wednesday, insurgents disguised as paramilitary rangers attacked troops guarding a school in Narathiwat, killing four soldiers and wounding two others. A 6-year-old student was also shot in the stomach during the assault.
Government soldiers are often assigned to guard teachers and Buddhist monks in the region. Schools and temples are frequently targeted by insurgents because they represent the Thai language and culture.
Sunai Phasuk from Human Rights Watch said that his group has warned Thai authorities “that the simultaneous use of school for military and education purposes will put civilians at risk.”
But Sunai also condemned the attack, saying: “Insurgents knew they could also harm students and teachers. Such brutality is sickening.”
In a separate incident, a man was shot dead by two gunmen on a motorcycle in the neighbouring Pattani province. A Malaysian citizen who was badly injured in a September 16 bombing also died in hospital yesterday, bringing the total deaths from that attack to seven.
Report: Insurgents kill 4 soldiers guarding school in southern Thailand [Washington Post, 28 Sep 2011]
Report: 4 troops killed in Narathiwat school attack [Bangkok Post, 29 Sep 2011]