Updated at 6:38 a.m. ET on 2019-12-24
Thai police filed murder charges against two soldiers on Monday, accusing them of involvement in the killing of three unarmed civilians in the nation’s Deep South, officials said, in a rare move to prosecute military men over the deaths of non-combatants in the insurgency-stricken region.
The two suspects – a commissioned officer and a volunteer assigned to the army’s 45th Ranger Force Regiment – were charged then released from the police station following an investigation into the fatal shooting of three people in Narathiwat, Maj. Gen. Narin Busaman, the provincial police chief, told BenarNews.
“Two soldiers gave themselves in and surrendered their guns for ballistic tests,” Narin said, without naming the suspects. “Investigators treated them as in a typical criminal case, and charged them with murder.”
Even though the duo turned themselves in on Friday, they were not taken into custody, he said.
The killings of Budiman Mali, 26, Hafisi Mada-o, 24;, and Manasi Sama-ae, 27, has stirred up anger against the Thai government in Narathiwat and neighboring provinces in the mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South, a heavily militarized region where a rebellion against Bangkok's rule has lasted decades.
The three men were fatally shot on Dec. 16 after encountering a government security unit while they were foraging for logs in a jungle in the Tawae mountain range in Ra-ngae, a district in Narathiwat.
“Investigators have interrogated three soldiers and another five are pending questioning,” Narin said. “We will question the relatives of the dead men, local leaders and other parties concerned and all evidences will be included in the case file for fairness.”
The shootings occurred while a security unit was patrolling the Tawae mountains as part of an operation to hunt for insurgents connected to twin attacks that killed 15 people at checkpoints in nearby Yala province early last month.
The unit ran into at least four men in the forest, and ordered them to identify themselves and submit to a search, Lt. Gen. Pornsak Poolsawat, the army commander in the Deep South, told reporters on Dec. 17.
“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,” Pornsak said, as he promised a fair probe.
More than 7,000 people have been killed in violence across the Deep South – which consists of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces and four districts of Songkhla province – since the separatist insurgency reignited in 2004.
Relatives of slain men receive financial assistance
On Monday, authorities visited Anae village to offer an apology and hand over an initial compensation of 500,000 baht ($16,572) to each family of the three victims.
“We’ve met the victims’ relatives to give them moral support,” Rear Adm. Somkiat Polprayoon, director of the Southern Border Province Administration Center (SBPAC), told reporters. “We also want to know their living conditions, so we can give more help.”
Somkiat was accompanied by Col. Teepat Empan, commander of the area’s military regiment, who, during his meeting with the relatives of the slain men, expressed regret over the shooting.
“We are here … to apologize,” Teepat told reporters, as he acknowledged that “mistakes” had been made by his men during the patrol. He also announced plans to order soldiers to construct a house for the relatives of one of the three men.
Other than the financial assistance, Somkiat said, authorities would also provide medical care and job placement for the victims’ relatives, one of whom demanded a public apology from the shooters.
“We received the cash compensation,” a father of one of the slain men, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, told BenarNews. “But what we want is for the shooters to apologize to us during a press conference.”
During his visit to the regional security operations command in Pattani province on Monday, Army Chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong also expressed regret over the killings.
“Whatever faults were committed, the army and those soldiers on duty will accept them,” Apirat told reporters. “Wrongdoers will be treated according to justice, without exemption.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to one of the two suspects charged with murder as a non-commissioned officer.