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Suffocation Inquiry - Senior Thai Officers Guilty

Senior Thai Officers Found Guilty In Muslim Suffocation Inquiry


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Senior military officers were "guilty of dereliction of duty," causing 78 Muslims to suffocate to death in army trucks and used "excessive force" to kill 31 armed rebels in a mosque, a government commission said.

Publication on Tuesday (April 26) of an English-language translation of the commission's official report examined Buddhist-majority Thailand's inability to halt worsening violence in the south, where minority ethnic Malay Muslims complain of extrajudicial killings, torture and other human rights abuses.

"We see no indication that regional or international [terrorists] are involved in the violence in the south," U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce said on April 20 when asked by reporters about unrest along Thailand's southern border with Muslim-majority Malaysia.

"It's a Thai domestic issue," the American envoy said.

Thai analysts however said Muslim separatists and sympathizers may be inspired by Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda and Southeast Asia's Jemaah Islamiyah, which are fighting to unite the world's Muslims under Islamic law and end domination by "non-believers".

Denying accusations that Bangkok discriminates against Muslims, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra appointed a National Reconciliation Commission to investigate bloodshed in the south, a zone crippled by daily bombings, shootings, arson attacks and other skirmishes.

The commission's report coincides with the prime minister's current visit to Jordan and Oman, where he hopes to smooth ties with Middle East Muslims and clinch lucrative oil and other commercial deals.

No senior military officials have been prosecuted for the army's two crackdowns, and the fact-finding commission was not empowered to punish anyone.

On Oct. 25, in Narathiwat province's Tak Bai district, the military opened fire on hundreds of Muslims protesting over the jailing of six local Muslims.

The army shot dead at least seven demonstrators.

The military then rounded up about 1,370 protestors, tied their hands behind their backs, forced them to lay face down in army trucks, stacked them prone on top of each other until the trucks were full, and drove the convoys to an army camp several hours away, the official report confirmed.

"The detainees also testified that during the journey, when detainees called for help, they were assaulted by guards who used either a rifle butt or a baton. Some soldiers also kicked or stomped on the detainees," it said.

When the packed trucks began arriving at Ingkayuth military camp in Pattani province, officials began to discover scores of squished corpses in each vehicle.

Throughout the night, and into the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 26, military officers made no attempt to announce the fatalities to other army drivers who continued to transport more bound victims stacked on top of each other, it said.

"High-ranking officials who oversaw the transport of protesters were guilty of dereliction of duty, as they failed to ensure it was carried out sensibly. Seventy-eight protesters died while being transported," it said.

The 78 deaths were "not intentional" and "there was no deliberate act to cause death and injury," the government-appointed committee said.

The report also named names.

"The committee found that Major-General Chalermchai Wiroonphet, then commander of the Fifth Infantry Division, is responsible for both incidents," including the "crackdown" and "transportation" during the Tak Bai incident, it said.

"He left the scene at 7:30 p.m. [Oct. 25], without an acceptable excuse, to meet the prime minister in Narathiwat."

Major-General Sinchai Nutsatit, the then-deputy commander of the Fourth Army Region, "failed to take any action against officials, who were in control of the transport of protesters, when he found that some had died on the trucks.

"He also did not act in any way to help protesters detained on the trucks. If he did act, he could have reduced the number of casualties," the National Reconciliation Commission said.

In a separate investigation, the same commission said the military wrongly killed 31 Muslims on April 20, 2004, when the armed separatists used the Krue Se mosque in Pattani province to battle security forces.

Muslim rebels, firing assault rifles and a grenade launcher, retreated to the tiny mosque and were surrounded by security forces.

"The anti-riot forces appear to have failed to launch genuine negotiations for the surrender of militants...The use of heavy weapons was excessive, and did not correspond with the arms used by the militants," the commission said.

"The government should learn a lesson, and try to prevent a repeat of the violent suppression."

It named several senior army officers involved in the mosque shoot-out, including General Panlop Pinmanee, deputy commander of Internal Security Operations Command, and Lieutenant-General Pisan Wattawongkhiri, commanding general of the Fourth Army region.

The report was initially released in Thai language on Sunday (April 24), and censored to conceal the identities of some sources.

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Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is www.geocities.com/glossograph/


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