The Real Victims in Southern Thailand's Insurgency

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Madaree Tohlala / AFP / Getty Images

Thai soldiers and police gather next to the body of a Muslim rubber farmer who was shot dead by suspected militants in Thailand's southern province of Narathiwat on February 12, 2011

Usman Buesa taught the Koran. But spreading the word of Islam didn't protect him from those who profess to defend Islam. As the 24-year-old teacher in Pattani province in southern Thailand drove two of his young students home on the back of his motorcycle on Jan. 27, Islamic insurgents put a bullet in his head. Neither the students nor others who saw the shooting were willing to identify the killers. "They've been too traumatized or scared to talk," Usman's father told investigators.

Usman was one of almost 5,000 people who have been killed since 2004 in what Amnesty International is now labeling an "internal armed conflict" in the deep south of Thailand. The insurgency pits Islamic militants against the predominantly Buddhist Thai state, which has flooded the area with as many as 40,000 soldiers in its counter-insurgency operations. Since 2006, according to an Amnesty International report released on Tuesday, the militants have responded by deliberately attacking civilians. Ironically, the group says, a majority of the victims in the region's violence have been those whom the insurgents are supposedly fighting for: Muslim farmers, rubber tappers, teachers, shopkeepers and others. "These killings constitute war crimes," Donna Guest, Amnesty's deputy director for Asia and the Pacific, told a press conference in Bangkok. "There are no circumstances in which targeting civilians is justified."

Guest's contention that the violence meets the Geneva Convention's standard for an internal armed conflict would make the insurgents liable to be tried for war crimes — if they could be identified, much less apprehended. But those responsible for the dramatic upsurge in shootings, bombings and arson in the deep south since 2004 have often been described as "shadowy." Their organization remains nameless. They don't claim responsibility for attacks. They have never issued a comprehensive statement detailing their grievances, demands or goals. But the deadly violence has steadily intensified. A bombing in the border town of Sungai Kolok two weeks ago, for instance, killed six and wounded over 100. Notes left on bodies following attacks like this and other evidence indicates that most killings are "ideological," says Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty's researcher for Thailand. He says such attacks are likely intended to create an atmosphere of terror that would prevent anyone with questionable loyalties from helping the authorities.

Resistance against the central government has been a feature of life in Thailand's five southernmost provinces — Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, Satun and Songkhla — since they were annexed in 1902. The Malay Muslims who make up the majority of the population here have long complained of discrimination and abuse at the hands of the Thai state. By the late 1990s, however, most residents had come to accept they were part of Thailand and older, better-known separatist groups were fading away. But in 2001, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's new government adopted a hard-line approach to the low-level resistance that still existed in the provinces. Soon after, violence exploded to unprecedented levels, although it has remained contained to the deep south.

Southern Thailand borders Malaysia, and as with most border regions, it is a nexus for smuggling and a wide variety of criminal activity. That has led some to conclude that a significant proportion of the violence is rooted in crime rather than ethnic or religious grievances. "It is irresponsible for Amnesty International to say that the 5,000 deaths are the work of insurgents," says Marc Askew, a political scientist from the University of Melbourne who has studied the violence in the region. He said that 30% to 40% of attacks are probably related to criminal activity. Col. Parinya Chaitilok, a spokesman for Thailand's Fourth Army, which is responsible for security in the deep south, said he believes that only about 20% of attacks on civilians are the work of insurgents. "They don't usually attack civilians. They usually attack us, the security forces,'' he says.

Amnesty was quick to stress that the government's security forces are also guilty of abuses. A 2009 report issued by the group alleged that security forces routinely used torture on suspects. "That use of torture is ongoing," Zawacki says, adding that a major problem is the impunity with which security forces operate in the region. No soldier has even been charged with torture, an unlawful killing or any other form of abuse. Zawacki gives credit, however, to recently elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for being open to offers of help from Indonesia in seeking solutions to the southern problem, noting that Indonesia had learned valuable lessons in negotiating an end to a long-running insurgency in its western province of Aceh in 2005.

On the other hand, the Yingluck government's recent nomination of a retired general, who was responsible for the shelling of southern Thailand's holiest mosque in 2004, to a top national security position may be an indication the administration is going to take an even harder line against the insurgents. As the new government considers its options, the death toll in the south keeps rising.