A human rights group that investigated Muslim separatist violence in Thailand's Far South says the guerrilla groups have given up the idea of compromise with the Thai state, and their attacks on civilians - both Buddhists and Muslims - are becoming more ruthless than ever. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Bangkok.
Researchers from the group Human Rights Watch spent more than a year in southern Thailand, interviewing victims, eyewitnesses, and the separatist fighters who are primarily ethnic Malay Muslims. Sunai Phasuk of the group's Bangkok office says they gained some rare insight into the separatists' motives.
"We also talked to members of separatist groups, who explained to us that they are now fighting without any compromise, without any intention to reconcile with the Thai state," Sunai said. "They are calling the struggle for independence an Islamic duty. So they want to see every single ethnic Malay Muslim in the south join the rank and file, taking up arms, and fighting to force Buddhist Thais to leave. So, they don't want to see, according to their explanation to Human Rights Watch - these militants do not want to see Buddhist Thais and ethnic Malay Muslims living side-by-side as friends anymore."
In a report released Tuesday, Human Rights Watch says of the approximately two thousand 400 people killed in Thailand's predominantly
Muslim southern provinces over the past three years, almost two thousand 200 - or 89 percent - have been civilians killed by the separatists.
The separatists, who belong to several different groups, have revealed little about the structure of their organizations. They have never formally laid out a program or a list of demands, although the report and other sources say the aim is a state independent from predominately Buddhist Thailand.
Human Rights Watch says it is clear that campaign is becoming more ruthless. Sunai says interviews with separatists indicate there is a coordinated effort to instill fear among both the Thai Buddhists they want to chase out, and the ethnic Muslim Malays they are trying to control and recruit.
"Human Rights Watch can track down only the chain of command at the local level, how they structure the organization that they have," Sunai said. "The militant wings that carry out the daily attacks, they have their imam council, which is in charge of spiritual affairs, indoctrination, and justification of attacks. They have the propaganda machine, the political machine, which spreads the message of fear…of terror, as well as the message of control over the population."
Human Rights Watch's revelations, if accurate, help explain why a conciliatory approach in the past year by Thailand's military-installed government failed to stem the violence.
Having been rebuffed in their attempt to negotiate with the separatists, the military and police have again gone on the attack in recent months.
The security forces, however, have also come under international criticism, for carrying out what human rights advocates describe as extrajudicial killings, disappearances of suspected militants, and other abuses.