Two soldiers turned themselves in on Friday as part of an investigation into the shooting deaths of three unarmed civilians by Thai security forces in the mountains of insurgency-stricken Narathiwat province on Dec. 16, police said.
The killings have sparked new 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 rule has simmered for decades.
“One is a volunteer [army] ranger and another is a commissioned officer. They turned themselves in and brought with them two pistols to Narathiwat city’s police station at 7 a.m. today. Previously, the 45th Ranger Forces Regiment told us that they would come at 10 a.m.,” Narathiwat police chief Maj. Gen. Narin Busaman told BenarNews.
The pair turned up at the police station a day after the army chief in southern Thailand ordered security-unit members who were involved in killing the three loggers to turn themselves in so an investigation could begin, Thai media reported.
Military and police officials withheld the names of the two soldiers.
“We have to further investigate before releasing any details,” Col. Pramote Prom-in, the 4th Army Region spokesman, told BenarNews.
On Tuesday, a day after the civilians were fatally shot during a confrontation with the security unit, Lt. Gen. Pornsak Poolsawat, the army commander in the Deep South, promised a fair probe. He said an initial investigation had revealed that the three slain men were villagers foraging in the forest for logs, not armed separatist insurgents.
On Friday, a relative of one of the slain villagers called on the army to bring the suspects before next of kin to apologize for their actions. Budiman Mali, 26, Hafisi Mada-o, 24, and Manasi Sama-ae, 27, have been identified as the victims.
“What we want is justice, guilty persons should be punished,” the relative told BenarNews on condition of anonymity. “We want all soldiers to retreat from our village because villagers are afraid that there might be a retaliation from those soldiers.”
The man alleged this was not the first time that soldiers had killed villagers.
“This similar situation has been repeated over and over before,” he said, adding, “shooters turned themselves in and nothing happened.”
“So villagers do not trust soldiers anymore.”
Meanwhile, the president of the Narathiwat Islamic Committee questioned the government’s sincerity in this case.
“They should stop promising villagers justice. All promises are just bragging,” Safie Jehloh told BenarNews.
‘The dead men are villagers’
Monday’s killings occurred while the security unit – a combined force of military, police personnel, militia and officials from local agencies – was patrolling the Tawae mountains in Narathiwat as part of an operation to hunt for insurgents connected to twin attacks that killed 15 people at security 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 told reporters on Tuesday.
“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.
On the day of the shooting, Pornsak said the slain men were suspected insurgents who were armed. However, he reversed that statement the next day, saying that they were in fact unarmed.
The military commander then promised justice for the slain loggers.
“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 on Dec. 17. “They will face investigation and punishment, disciplinarily and criminally, without exception ... if they intended to do wrong deeds.”
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.
Also on Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha announced that a 2005 Emergency Decree would remain in effect in most of the Deep South, giving security forces almost blanket immunity for their actions.
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 insurgency reignited in 2004.