NEW YORK: Separatist groups in Thailand's southern border provinces have killed at least five Thai Buddhist women, mutilating three of their bodies, since February 2014, Human Rights Watch said today.
The insurgents should immediately end their attacks targeting civilians, which are war crimes, Human Rights Watch said.
''Southern insurgents are killing Buddhist women and spreading terror by beheading and burning their bodies,'' said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
''Claims by separatist groups that they are retaliating against government abuses are no justification for attacks on civilians.''
On April 2, insurgents ambushed a pickup truck in which a village chief from Yala province's Bannang Sta district was riding, killing him and two female deputy chiefs.
The bullet-riddled body of Ear Sritong, 47, village chief of Ban Kasung Nai Moo 6, was found near his pickup.
Chaleaw Pikulklin, 50, and Urai Thabtong, 47, who had been riding with the chief in the truck, had also been shot with M16 assault rifles.
Urai had been decapitated, and police found her head in a bush across the road. 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!''
Since January 2004, Thailand's southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat have been the scene of a brutal armed conflict, which has claimed the lives of thousands of civilians from both the ethnic Thai Buddhist and ethnic Malay Muslim populations.
On March 20, 2014, insurgents shot and killed Somsri Tanyakaset, 39, a female teacher at Kok Muba Friendship School in Narathiwat province's Tak Bai district as she was riding her motorcycle back home.
Another female teacher, Siriporn Srichai, 43, was shot dead while going to work at Tabing Tingi Community School in Pattani province's Mayo district on March 14.
The assailants poured gasoline on Siriporn's body and set it on fire. A leaflet stating, ''This attack is in revenge for the killing of innocent people,'' was found nearby.
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 written message to the army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, left nearby stated, ''Dear army chief, this is not the last body after the three brothers.''
This message referred to the February 3 attack allegedly committed by the army's Taharn Pran paramilitary force that killed three ethnic Malay-Muslim brothers, ages 6, 9, and 11, and wounded their parents in Narathiwat province's Bacho district.
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.
Other prohibited acts include reprisal attacks against civilians and captured combatants, summary execution of detainees, and mutilation or other mistreatment of the dead.
The laws of war also prohibit acts or threats of violence for which the primary purpose is to spread terror among the civilian population.
Insurgent claims that Islamic law permits attacks on civilians in certain circumstances do not change the separatist groups' international legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said.
The rapidly growing attacks on civilians by the Patani Independence Fighters (Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani) in the loose network of the separatist National Revolution Front-Coordinate (BRN-Coordinate) heighten concern for civilian security.
According to statistics from the government's Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), separatist groups are responsible for most of the violent incidents in Thailand's southern border provinces between January 2004 and March 2014, which resulted in 5488 deaths and 10,118 injuries.
Civilians – both ethnic Thai Buddhists and ethnic Malay Muslims – have been the frequent target of insurgent attacks.
Both insurgents and Thai security forces have been responsible for serious abuses in the southern border provinces, Human Rights Watch said.
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.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has repeatedly stated that justice is key to peace in the southern border provinces. Yet the government continues to extend the draconian state of emergency that has facilitated state-sponsored abuses and impunity.
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.
Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for credible and impartial investigations into alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by security personnel and militia forces in the south.
Inquiries by the police and the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center have proceeded very slowly, with little concrete result. Officials often fail to keep the families of victims apprised of any progress in the investigation, compounding the family???s frustrations.
While in some cases the government has made financial reparations to the victims' families, money alone should not be considered a substitute for justice.
''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.''