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Rights Groups Call for Action in Thailand's Troubled Muslim South


Human rights groups have called on the Thai government to release 58 men arrested two years ago during a military crackdown in the southern Thai town of Tak Bai. Rights groups are challenging Thailand's new military rulers to act on promises to rebuild confidence after more than two years of conflict between Muslim communities and Thai security forces in the south.

Two years ago, a deadly security operation in the town of Tak Bai intensified the conflict in Thailand's southern region. On the anniversary, international rights organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, called for the new military government to live up to its pledge of a fresh effort toward peace.

Amnesty wants 58 detainees in Tak Bai released, and officials related to the death of 78 others held accountable.

The trouble started when a crowd gathered in front of the Tak Bai jail, where six men were being held for allegedly giving state weapons to Muslim insurgents.

When the crowd refused to disperse, Thai soldiers started shooting, killing six men on the spot.

Video news film footage showed men stripped of their shirts, hands tied behind their backs, stacked in trucks. Four hours later, 78 men were dead.

Thai forensic scientist Porntip Rojanasunan, told VOA what she saw.

"On that day I was told to go down to the South to collect the DNA samples," she said. "We went to the autopsy room and we saw a lot of bodies - I think 78 lying over each other in the room - in the autopsy room. That is the first time that I saw [them]."

Porntip said many had been hit around the face area but the main causes of death were asphyxiation and heat stroke.

"The main issue is the institutionalization of impunity," said Sunai Pasuk, a representative for Human Rights Watch in Thailand. "No one has been punished in whatever ways. The senior officials have simply been removed from the scene, and they are still in a position, they are still in important positions. So this has set a standard of impunity."

Thailand's prime minister, retired General Surayud Chulanont, has said peaceful resolution of the violence in the southern, largely Muslim provinces is a priority of his government. He has expressed support for releasing those detained in Tak Bai. His cabinet has also approved the revival of a joint military and civilian security center to help promote reconciliation.

The former government of Thaksin Shinawatra had abolished that body, and other avenues for dialogue. Military coup rulers have said they ousted the Thaksin government in September, in part, because of its heavy-handed approach in the South. The conflict has claimed more than 1,500 lives since early 2004.