Thailand’s southern army commander clarified an earlier statement and promised a fair investigation on Tuesday when he announced that three men shot dead by a security task force in insurgency-stricken Narathiwat province the day before were unarmed civilians.
Shortly after the killings on Monday, Lt. Gen. Pornsak Poolsawat, the commander of the 4th Army Region that oversees Narathiwat and the rest of the Deep South, said the slain men were suspected insurgents who had clashed with security forces while others managed to escape.
But after hearing from relatives and conducting an initial investigation, Pornsak reversed his initial conclusion and spoke to reporters on Tuesday to set the record straight.
“When officers arrived at the scene and encountered four to five unknown men, they identified themselves and asked to search the men,” Pornsak told reporters in Narathiwat, referring to the task force made up of soldiers, police and officials from local agencies.
“But those men ran away and three or four gunshots were heard, so the officers returned fire, killing three while one or two managed to escape,” he said.
He also said the men were not armed – reversing an earlier statement that the men had two guns.
Pornsak promised justice for the slain loggers, saying he had ordered the unit responsible, the 45th Ranger Task Force, to conduct an investigation into the shootings.
“When there is an initial finding that the dead men are villagers and not insurgents, and despite officers’ efforts to be careful, they cannot deny responsibility because of the deadly mistake,” Pornsak said. “They will face investigation and punishment, disciplinarily and criminally, without exception ... if they intended to do wrong deeds.”
Ibraheng Mali, the father of Budiman Mali, 26, one of the three men killed on Monday, said he heard gunshots and was told about his son by a neighbor who witnessed the shooting. Ibraheng identified the two other dead men as Hafisi Mada-o, 24, and Manasi Sama-ae, 27.
“My son, my nephew Hafisi Mada-o, and their friend Manasi Sama-ae, were shot on the mountain,” Ibraheng told BenarNews.
“I affirm that my son and nephew as well as their friend were not insurgents or bad guys as reported. They cut logs to make a living,” he said. “What I want is justice.”
Manasi’s father, Mahamaroyali Sama-ae, said he kept waiting for his son’s body for burial.
“I did not sleep since last night, awaiting my son to come and have his rite,” Mahamaroyali told BenarNews. “I grieve for my son, he must have felt sheer pain. I want justice. He was not a bad guy.”
Pornsak, the army commander, said Monday’s incident in the Tawae mountains followed a Dec. 4 bloodless shootout against eight to 12 suspected insurgents in another village in the same district. Security forces in the Deep South have been involved in a manhunt since Nov. 5 when a pair of insurgent attacks killed 15 people at two checkpoints in Yala province.
Pornsak also requested that a Deep South human rights protection team of religious leaders, civilians and officials, conduct an independent investigation to ensure fairness and provide a base for possible compensation.
Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Bangkok-based Cross Cultural Foundation, called for a truly independent investigation.
“The fact-finding team for the extra-judicial execution in Narathiwat must be independent and competent – if not it is another mouthpiece for the perpetrators who are in power,” Pornpen said in a Facebook posting.
“Mistaken killing is not self-defense, not subject to reduction in punishment, not exempt and is obligated to the law,” she said. “Bring the wrong-doers to justice, compensate the dead and reform the military.”
Pornpen was out of the country and could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a Deep South human rights protection committee member promised the families of the slain loggers that they would get justice.
“The three were found dead next to timber without weapons,” Pornpilai Bovornnaringdesh told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday. “Please, all villagers, trust officials who are performing the investigation.”
In Bangkok on Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha announced that a 2005 Emergency Decree would remain in effect in most of the Deep South. The decree gives security forces almost blanket immunity for their actions.
More than 7,000 people have been killed in violence across the mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South – which consists of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces and four districts of Songkhla province – since the separatist insurgency reignited in 2004.