Hundreds gathered Wednesday at a school in Thailand’s Deep South to mourn and pray for peace, a day after a bomb near the campus killed a small girl, her father and a third civilian, in an attack blamed on rebels.
Students, teachers, Islamic leaders and local government officials were among some 500 who turned out at the Ban Taba school in Tak Bai, a district of Narathiwat province, to call for an end to violence in Thailand’s southern border region.
The latest attack angered the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Human Rights Watch, and the Sheikhul Islam Office, a government organization that represents Thailand’s Muslim minority, which dominates the Malay-speaking Deep South.
“The Sheikhul Islam Office sincerely offers condolences to the family and relatives of the dead in the incident and strongly condemns the assailants regardless of who they are. The attack is cruel and inhumane and is against the exaltation of Allah’s teaching,” the office said in a statement released late Tuesday.
Narathiwat Governor Sithichai Sakda, who was among those participating in the gathering at the school, told reporters he had talked with local authorities about assessing and possibly revamping safety measures in 13 districts of the province.
“We discussed with the military and the police about surveying areas with high risk to analyse safety measures. It is a delicate issue that we need to consider carefully,” the governor said.
Since 2004, more than 6,000 people have died in shootings, roadside bombings and other incidents associated with a separatist insurgency.
UNICEF, HRW deplore attack
A 20-kilo (44-pound) motorcycle bomb went off across the street from the school as parents were taking their children there on Tuesday morning, killing a 4-year-old girl and two other civilians, and injuring at least nine others, including four security personnel, authorities said.
A leader of a combat unit of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) – the largest and most heavily armed of the southern Thai rebel groups – later told BenarNews that his unit had carried out the attack, along with recent deadly bombings in the Deep South and 11 others at tourist areas in nearby provinces.
The rebel source said his unit had not intended to kill civilians in Tuesday’s attack, but was targeting officials.
The unit known as Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK) was sending a message about informal peace talks that resumed last week in Kuala Lumpur between the Thai junta and MARA Patani, a panel representing rebel groups and factions from the Deep South, he said.
BRN is among the represented groups but the organization’s factions are not entirely united over the peace process.
“We want to respond to the talks that made no progress …,” the RKK leader said, adding. “[T]he government does not show their sincerity for a real peace.”
After the attack, UNICEF’s representative in Thailand issued a statement voicing grave concern that another child and a parent had fallen victim to ongoing unrest in the Thai Deep South.
“UNICEF is shocked and saddened by this incident. Schools must be places of learning, discovery and recreation for children,” UNICEF representative Thomas Davin said.
“No children, nor any caretakers or education professionals should live or learn under fear of such attacks. All schools must become safe havens,” he added.
On Wednesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the attack as a war crime.
“Those responsible for bombing a school just as parents were dropping off their children showed incomprehensible brutality,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement. “Calling this a war crime does not fully convey the harm done to the victims or the far-reaching impact such attacks have on children in the region.”
HRW noted that a splinter group of BRN known as Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C) had not ceased attacks on civilians since unofficial peace talks had resumed on Sept. 2.
During the past 12 years more than 200 schools have been burned or targeted with bombs in the Deep South, and at least 182 teachers have been killed, HRW added.
“Human Rights Watch’s research has found that since the escalation of armed insurgency in January 2004, the BRN-Coordinate has targeted schools, teachers and other education personnel, which they consider symbolic of the Thai Buddhist state’s control of ethnic Malay Muslim territory,” the rights watchdog said.