PATTANI — The four men shot dead by soldiers during a raid in the restive province of Pattani last month had no links to the local Islamic insurgency, an investigative committee ruled in a report released today.
The four men, in their early twenties and thirties, were killed when security officers raided To Chud village on 25 March. The military said the operation was an effort to arrest local Islamic separatists, and initially identified the victims as members of a militant group that regularly stages attacks in the region.
Security officers inspect site of a roadside bomb attack in Narathiwat province, 4 April 2015
However, community leaders and relatives of the four men disputed the military's accusations, prompting authorities to form a 15-member panel to investigate the raid. The panel's members included local administrators, human rights officials, military officers, representatives from the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand, and officials from Fatoni University, where two of the victims were enrolled as students.
Waedueramae Mamingi, director of Pattani's Central Islamic Committee and chairman of the panel, said today that the four men did not have any links to the insurgency.
"The committee concludes that the four deceased were not extremists, and were not members of any extremist group," said Waedueramae Mamingi, director of Pattani's Central Islamic Committee and chairman of the panel. "Some of them were previously arrested, but only for drug charges."
The military told the media that officers only began shooting after they encountered gun fire from the suspects, who they believed were gathering in the village to plot new attacks in the region. After the raid, officers detained twenty-two other men and confiscated three assault rifles they said were found near bodies of the victims.
However, Waedueramae said the panel’s findings raised serious doubts about whether anyone in the village exchanged gunfire with the security officers during the raid.
According to the committee, the security officers surrounded the village at around 5 pm, which prompted four men to run and hide in a rubber farm behind the village. The security officers chased after them, and gunfire was later heard from the direction of the farm. Afterwards, the four men were found dead, Waedueramae told reporters.
"There was no clear evidence that linked the deceased with the firearms. We also have skepticism about some other aspects [of the raid]," Waedueramae said, citing forensic test results. He added that witnesses and security officers also said they did not see the four men carrying any firearms while they ran to the rubber farm.
"Therefore, the committee believes that the confiscated firearms did not belong to the deceased," he said.
Nevertheless, Waedueramae said the committee did not dispute the legality of the raid, because the security officers were acting on an intelligence report, and had the right to search properties without warrants under martial law, which had been imposed over Pattani and its neighboring provinces for the last nine years.
The committee recommended prosecuting officers involved in the raid for the botched operation, financially compensating the families of the victims, and allowing community leaders to observe military raids in the areas they oversee, for the sake of transparency.
According to police, seven soldiers will be charged with premeditated murder over the killings. A senior police officer told Khaosod yesterday that the soldiers will report to hear the charges "in mid-April." The group failed to report for their first summons to Thung Yang Daeng Police Station last week.
Lt.Gen. Prakarn Chollayuth, the army commander who oversees Pattani and its neighboring provinces, said he accepted the panel's findings and apologized to the families of the victims.
"Today, every side must join hands and overcome the crisis of what has happened at To Chud village, so that things will return to normalcy under the laws and human rights principles. I humbly accept the verdict that the committee read to the press today," Lt.Gen. Prakarn said. "As for what happened, I apologize to all sides."
He promised that the army will respect legal procedures, but added that "fairness must be granted to the security officers. We have to give time for them to prove themselves. We must also understand that security officers who work under these conditions may be frightened at times, which can affect their decision-making."
More than 6,200 people have been killed since secessionist violence broke out in the three southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat in early 2004, according to data compiled by rights groups.
Approximately 60,000 security officers are stationed in the region, known as the Deep South, to combat insurgents seeking to revive the independent sultanate of Patani, which was incorporated into modern-day Thailand in the early 20th century.
Although suspected insurgent attacks are responsible for the majority of casualties, human rights activists have also documented cases of excessive brutality and foul play by security officers in the region.
In January 2012, security officers shot dead four local men near a checkpoint in Pattani and identified them as insurgents. An independent investigation later reveals that the four men were unarmed civilians unrelated to the insurgency.
More recently, in August 2014 a volunteer ranger admitted to killing a local 14-year-old boy and planting a firearm on his body to implicate him as an insurgent.
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