The recent burning and beheading of female victims in Thailand’s southern Muslim provinces marks a renewed campaign of terror by insurgent groups, according to a Human Rights Watch statement released today.
At least three Thai Buddhist women have been killed and mutilated by insurgents since February, according to HRW.
“Southern insurgents are killing Buddhist women and spreading terror by beheading and burning their bodies,” Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, said in the statement.
Such attacks are carried out for two reasons, said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand at HRW.
Attacks involving mutilation are intended to send a message of “terror” to scare Thai Buddhists into leaving Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani provinces, or are carried out as “retaliation” for extrajudicial killings committed by Thai security forces, he said.
“Claims by separatist groups that they are retaliating against government abuses are no justification for attacks on civilians,” said Adams.
Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst with IHS-Jane's, said that "the primary catalyst [for these mutilation killings] appears to be the killing of the three children in Bacho," referring to a February 3 attack allegedly committed by the army’s Taharn Pran paramilitary force that killed three ethnic Malay-Muslim brothers, ages 6 to 11, and wounded their parents in Narathiwat province’s Bacho district.
Less than 10 days later, on February 12, insurgents in Pattani province’s Yaring district shot dead Sayamol Sae Lim, 29, a female employee of Bangkok Bank, and burned her body. A message found at the scene which was addressed to army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, said “Dear army chief, this is not the last body after the three brothers.”
On March 14, Siriporn Srichai, a 43-year-old teacher, was shot dead while on the way to work Pattani province’s Mayo district. The attackers doused her body with gasoline and set it on fire. A leaflet stating: “This attack is in revenge for the killing of innocent people,” was found nearby.
Then, on April 2, insurgents killed a village chief from Yala province’s Bannang Sata district and two female deputy chiefs. One of the deputies, Urai Thabtong, 47, was shot and then decapitated. A leaflet left at the scene stated, “This attack is a punishment for letting Aor Sor [the Interior Ministry’s village militia] commit killings and oppression of our Malay people. Free Patanni!”
Male victims have been decapitated numerous times in the past, but this marked the first case in the past 10 years when a female victim was beheaded, said Sunai.
These attacks were "calculated to shock, outrage and widen the communal divide," said Davis. The insurgents are saying, "If you're going outrage us, we're going to outrage you."
At least 5,488 people have been killed in the southern border provinces since the conflict intensified in January 2004.
Last year, the primary focus of insurgent attacks shifted from civilians to security forces and government officials, said Sunai. “But since the beginning of this year [the attacks] have shifted back to civilians.”
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, which are applicable to the fighting in southern Thailand, prohibits attacks targeting civilians, including government officials not involved in military operations. Mutilation or other mistreatment of the dead is also outlawed.
Both insurgents and Thai security forces have been responsible for serious abuses in the southern border provinces, according to HRW.
Successive Thai governments have failed to successfully prosecute any member of their security forces or pro-government militias for human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances. This lack of justice has fed insurgent violence against civilians, said HRW.
The extensive powers and near-blanket immunity provided to security forces who commit human rights violations has generated anger and alienation in the ethnic Malay Muslim community, said HRW.
“People in southern Thailand are trapped between insurgent violence and state-sponsored abuses,” Adams said. “The government should understand that shielding abusive troops from prosecution strengthens hardliners in separatist groups, who then intensify atrocities against civilians.”