Pattani tragedy puts spotlight on rangers
The fatal shooting of four villagers in Pattani by military rangers was the result of a "misunderstanding", an independent committee investigating the deaths has found.
Police inspect a pickup truck riddled with bullets at the scene where four people were shot dead and four injured by military rangers in Pattani’s Nong Chik district. ABDULLOH BENJAKAT
The tragedy caused uproar among Muslims in the South.
The inquiry into the shootings, which took place in January, reveals that subcontracting security operations to poorly trained rangers could inflame the conflict in the region.
On the night of Jan 29, nine villagers _ five elderly and four young men _ were travelling in a pickup truck about 8.30pm to attend a funeral in a nearly village. A group of armed rangers stopped the vehicle at a point where a local road joined Road 418 in Pattani's Nong Chik district.
Accounts from villagers and rangers as to what followed are starkly different. In the end, four villagers lay shot dead inside the pickup truck and four of them were wounded.
The military-led Internal Security Operations Command's Region 4 set up the independent 14-member committee, led by Pattani Islamic Council chairman Waedueramae Mamingchi, to establish the truth about the shootings.
It deserves some praise for its decision to set up the panel, as it suggests a departure from the tradition in which military commanders often protect their subordinates at all cost.
It is perhaps an indication that the military is willing to embrace transparency and accountability as their new norms.
This practice, if it continues, could help reduce the sense of mistrust and prejudice against the state harboured by many Muslims.
A commander and three rangers told the committee that security forces at the scene waved their hands asking the pickup truck to stop.
But the vehicle moved backward, apparently preparing to drive away. The driver left the car and a gunshot was heard. The military forces say they fired back in self-defence.
Stories from the five surviving villagers are very different. They revealed that a man sitting next to the driver shouted to the rangers standing 5 metres away that they were going to a funeral.
Suddenly, gunshots were heard. Three men managed to run away, two of whom were wounded.
Six villagers stayed inside the truck _ four were killed and two injured. The survivors insisted no one in the vehicle had weapons. Strangely, an AK-47 rifle and three spent bullets were later found on the front seat and, in the rear of the pickup truck, a pistol was left between two dead bodies. How these weapons found their way there remains a mystery.
It is, however, clear from forensic evidence that these guns did not belong to the passengers.
Forensic tests show three shells were fired from three different rifles and none of them match the AK-47 rifle found next to them.
As for the pistol, it was indeed used but it is still unclear who fired the shot.
No traces of gunpowder or other chemicals from weapons were found on the bodies of the three surviving villagers, which proves their innocence.
What remains unclear is how the two villagers in the back of the truck died. Their relatives refused to allow forensic tests, allegedly citing religious concerns.
One might suspect the security forces resorted to the common tactic of placing guns next to the bodies so as to justify their shootings.
It will be difficult to prove this point without forensic examinations.
This underlines the importance of forensic science in helping clear the murky waters of the southern conflicts.
Many Muslims in the South are still not aware of its significance. A request to conduct an autopsy in cases of unusual death is often rejected on the grounds that it violates Islamic principles.
It is vital for all parties concerned to raise awareness among southern Muslims of this point.
After its six-week probe, the committee on March 20 submitted an 11-page report to 4th Army Commander Lt Gen Udomchai Thammasarorach.
It concludes the rangers mistakenly shot at innocent villagers. The area was dark and the confrontation occurred half an hour after a grenade attack had taken place at a nearby ranger base.
This incident is one of the most serious mistakes made by rangers and it should serve as a lesson for the government.
The military staunchly defends the benefits of deploying rangers. A major reason cited is they are local and so are more familiar with local culture and terrain. But the reality is that most rangers are not locally recruited.
Other less well-known reasons are they are cheap and ranger regiments are easy to create and dissolve.
In April last year, the Abhisit government approved the establishment of five ranger regiments in addition to the existing seven units in the deep South.
New recruits in the three new regiments have been deployed since late last year.
Others are being trained and expected to start service next month. Once completed, the number of rangers will increase from about 14,000 to 19,000, which amounts to about half of the overall military force.
This is part of the army's policy to pull back regular soldiers to their home units and replace them with rangers.
Rangers receive much less professional training compared to regular soldiers and some of them have violent or dubious backgrounds.
Putting them at the forefront of the counter-insurgency is dangerous. The Jan 29 incident only contributes to the tainted image of the "soldiers in black uniform" notorious for human rights abuses and extra-judicial killings, although the military claims new generations of rangers are more disciplined than those in the old days.
While it is unrealistic to demand that all ranger regiments be dissolved, the trend of deploying more rangers should be reversed and more training given to the forces, particularly on issues of human rights and rule of engagement.
Without addressing their shortcomings, "cheap" soldiers are likely to do more harm than good for the military's campaign to win the hearts and minds of residents.
Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat is an independent analyst who has until recently worked for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rungrawee Chalerm sripinyorat
Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University's Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs. She formerly worked as an analyst for the International Crisis Group.