Islamic separatist insurgents in southern Thailand have undermined any claims of legitimacy with their widespread deadly attacks on civilians, a respected human-rights group charged in a report issued yesterday.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said that the separatists carried out more than 3,000 attacks on civilians from January 2004 through last month. During the same period, they staged some 500 attacks against military personnel and installations, and a similar number against police.
Civilian casualties constitute nearly 90 percent of the more than 2,400 dead and 4,000 people injured as a result of militant attacks, said the group's 104-page report, No One is Safe: Insurgent Attacks on Civilians in Thailand's Southern Border Provinces.
"Militants have carried out a broad campaign of violence and fear, often targeting civilians, killing or injuring large numbers while they were going about their daily activities on the way to work, picking up their children from school, herding cattle, buying food in a market, eating in a restaurant," the report said.
Other civilians were killed by indiscriminate attacks such as bombings aimed at security forces in populated places.
The report suggested that peace may be years away, citing some insurgents as saying that their secretive group has no intention of giving up armed struggle for three to five years, when they believe they will be in a stronger position to hold political negotiations.
"Increasingly, they claim that the southern border provinces are not the land of Buddhist Thais, but a religious `conflict zone' which must be divided between ethnic Malay Muslims and `infidels,'" the report said, explaining that the separatists seek to liberate by force the area they call Patani Darulsalam -- Islamic Land of Patani -- from Buddhist Thai occupation.
Thailand's three southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani are the only ones with Muslim majorities in Buddhist-dominated Thailand. The area was annexed by Thailand about a century ago, and southern Muslims have long chafed at government abuses, exploitation and corruption, occasionally launching armed rebellion.
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: "Violence against civilians is being used by separatist militants to scare Buddhist Thais away from these provinces, keep ethnic Malay Muslims under control, and discredit the Thai authorities. But it is illegal and morally indefensible to deliberately target civilians in any circumstances."
Spreading terror seems the main goal of some attacks, the report said, citing at least 29 beheading victims and more than 40 Buddhist Thais and ethnic Malay Muslims who have been hacked to death with machetes over the past 43 months.
The resurgence of large scale separatist militancy, marked by a January 2004 raid on an army depot in Narathiwat was met by government forces "committing serious and widespread abuses against suspected militants and their supporters," the report said.
These included the use of disproportionate force against sometimes unarmed protesters, arbitrary arrests, torture, "disappearances," and extrajudicial killings, all of which further fueled the insurgency, it said.
The insurgents have never publicly announced their identity or goals.
But the report identifies them as village-based militants called Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani -- Patani Freedom Fighters -- in a loose network known as BRN-Coordinate, or National Revolution Front-Coordinate.