A Thai general on Thursday defended the use of emergency laws that give security forces broad powers, as police intensified their search for suspected insurgents behind the killing of 15 people – the largest death toll in years – in the nation’s violence-wracked Deep South.
Lt. Gen. Pornsak Poonsawat, chief of the Fourth Army Region Command, made his comments after a legislator called for a review of special laws that allow authorities to detain people for a wide range of offenses without a court-issued warrant.
“We are in need of those special security laws,” Pornsak told reporters. “Even with those laws, we were not able to prevent such attacks.”
He was referring to two attacks late Tuesday, when gunmen believed to be militants struck a pair of checkpoints in Yala province. They killed 15 people – a mix of civilian defense volunteers, police officers and civilians.
“Police are intensifying the search to track other members of the armed group,” Pornsak told a news conference. “They may be hiding in the nearby forest.”
The attackers on motorcycles and others on foot killed eight people at the scene, while seven of their victims died in the hospital, authorities said, adding that four more security personnel suffered serious injuries. Thirteen of the dead were Buddhists and the remaining two belonged to the border region’s Muslim majority.
Some of the attackers may have been injured, Pornsak said, corroborating a statement from a villager, who told BenarNews hours after the attacks that he saw “seven to eight attackers on foot” who opened fire at an outpost in Maung, a district in Yala.
“One defense volunteer tried to escape, but he was still hit and he returned fire,” the resident said, requesting anonymity for security reasons. “I saw one attacker getting shot and his friends dragged him away.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a report about Thailand’s military last year, criticized security forces for regularly using the 1914 Martial Law Act, the 2005 Emergency Decree on Public Administration in State of Emergency, and the 2008 Internal Security Act. According to the rights watchdog, abuses had occurred “with impunity” during operations against separatist insurgents in the Deep South.
The Thai military has dismissed all allegations that soldiers tortured or mistreated detainees. It had also “dismissed calls to disclose information about people held in military detention," HRW said.
On Thursday, Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, a 75-year-old legislator from the Deep South, who is an ethnic Malay and head of the Prachachart Party, demanded that the special security laws be revoked and called on the government to speed up its negotiations with insurgents.
“Those who did this want to destroy the peace process, therefore, the government should soon start the new round of peace talks … [and] also review the use of those special security laws,” Wan Muhamad Noor, whose party considers the Deep South its political stronghold, said in a speech to parliament.
“Military forces are still necessary but they should operate only in their own bases, and refrain from operating into civilian areas,” he said.
The Thai government has been holding peace talks with the insurgents since 2015, but the Malaysia-brokered negotiations have yielded no breakthroughs.
HRW accuses BRN of ‘laws-of-war violations’
The Deep South borders Malaysia and encompasses Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces as well as four districts in neighboring Songkhla.
Almost 7,000 people have been killed in violence in the region since a separatist insurgency renewed its campaign against Buddhist majority Thailand in 2004.
Analysts believe most of the violence is perpetrated by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), a separatist rebel group.
In its report last year, Human Rights Watch accused BRN of committing “numerous laws-of-war violations,” saying most of those killed during the past 15 years “have been civilians, including children, from both ethnic Malay Muslim and ethnic Thai Buddhist communities.”
Military intelligence officials estimate that BRN controls about 8,000 militants, mostly armed with rifles and pistols, in the Deep South.
No group has claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack, which is common in the Deep South, where attacks often come in the form of roadside bombs and attacks on security outposts, or killings of village chiefs seen with links to the military.
At its peak, the reignited insurgency campaign was claiming dozens of lives each month, but Tuesday’s attacks were the bloodiest in the Deep South since April 28, 2004, when machete-wielding Muslim youths launched pre-dawn attacks on 11 security checkpoints in three provinces. Authorities said at least 108 attackers and five members of the security forces were killed.
After the 2004 attacks, the government erected more checkpoints in the Deep South, where about 70,000 soldiers and 20,000 police officers are currently deployed.
On Thursday in the neighboring Malaysian state of Kelantan, about 142 km (89 miles) southeast of Yala, local police chief Hasanuddin Hassan told reporters he had beefed up security along the frontier with Thailand.
He called on district police chiefs to be on the lookout for fleeing gunmen suspected of carrying out Tuesday’s attacks.
“We will take precautionary measures by strengthening security control at the border,” he said.