Another fatal shooting of the innocent?
It seems likely that at least some of the dead and injured on the pickup truck fired on by paramilitary rangers in Pattani on Sunday night are innocent people.
The fatal shooting at tambon Pulo Puyo in Nong Chik district of Pattani in which four Malay Muslims were killed and five others injured by paramilitary rangers is a tragedy. But it could happen anywhere there is an insurgency, or war, and innocent people are caught in the middle of the conflict, not just in the far South of Thailand.
What matters is that when innocent people are mistakenly killed or injured by the security forces, it is necessary that their commanders have the courage to come out and say sorry, or to apologise for a fatal mistake, and to provide proper compensation for the death or injuries.
At this time, there is still a confusion about what actually happened. There are two sides to the story – the military's version and the story told by the victims’ families and friends - and they are as conflicting as black and white.
In order for the truth to be told, a thorough investigation is needed and it should be undertaken not just by the military but with the participation of impartial organisations and the victims’ representatives.
On the military side, Maj-Gen Akara Thiprojana, spokesman of the forward command of the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) of the 4th Army Region, said that before the fatal shooting, there was an attack on a ranger outpost in Ban Nam Dum. The assailants fired M79 grenades and escaped in a pick-up truck. The rangers gave chase while other ranger units in Tambon Pulo Puyo were alerted to intercept the runaway vehicle.
The spokesman claimed that there were two motorcycles escorting the pick-up truck when it approached a ranger roadblock in tambon Pulo Puyo. The pick-up driver was signalled to stop for a search but he instead put the vehicle into reverse gear and tried to escape. Then someone in the vehicle opened fire, prompting the rangers to shoot back.
However, he admitted that it was possible that innocent people in the pick-up truck could have been be used by insurgents as human shields as they tried to escape after the attack on the ranger outpost.
Deputy Prime Minister and former defence minister Yutthasak Sasiprapa doubted the innocence of the people in the ill-fated vehicle, asking why the driver tried to escape and why weapons - one AK47 assault rifle and an 11mm pistol - were found in the vehicle afterwards.
The eldest son of one of the dead men, 60-year old Asman Rueramae, said he didn’t believe his father was an insurgent. Nisi Rueramae, a teachers security guard at tambon Pulo Puyo, said his father had often warned him not to get involved in the conflict in the region.
Nisi said he was on duty on Sunday night when he heard the gunshots and tried to get to the scene to investigate, but was stopped by rangers who also refused to allow the district chief officer to get close to the scene. It was only after everything was settled, he was finally allowed into the area and found to his shock and sorrow that one of the four dead men was his own father.
With only a salary of only 4,500 baht a month from his guard’s job, and now the family's only breadwinner, Mr Nisi said he would be struggling to feed his mother and nine brothers and sisters.
One of the survivors of the shooting said they were traveling in the pick-up on their way back from attending a funeral in a nearby village. He said he didn’t understand why the vehicle was shot at.
Villagers claimed that nine months ago paramilitary rangers shot dead two Malay Muslim teenagers about two kilometers from tambon Pulo Puyo when pursuing suspected insurgents after they attacked a ranger outpost. There had never been an investigation of the case, and they believed the two young men were innocent of any crime.
So, what really happened on Sunday? Clearly, only a proper investigation by an impartial panel has any chance at all of revealing the truth.
Provincial governor Theera Mintrasak said on Tuesday a committee was being set up to investigate the shooting in Nong Chik district on Sunday night. It would report its findings within 30 days and legal action would be taken against anyone found to be in the wrong, including government authorities, he said. Just who will be on the inquiry panel was not clear.
Pending the results of a full inquiry, something must be done to ease the tension and to relieve the suffering of the families of the dead victims, and the wounded, who were not insurgents.
It is indeed refreshing that Deputy Prime Minister Yutthasak has finally admitted that some of the victims may be innocent people and has ordered that officials give help to the victims.
But financial assistance is not all that the victims and their families are looking for -- as in previous cases of mistaken killings of innocent people by the security forces. They want justice. However in the initial stage, at least, an apology from the military would help ease their hurt. But that may not be easy to come by for some military commanders who feel that making an apology amounts to a confession of a mistake.
The majority of Malay Muslims in the far South may not take to the streets to protest against this latest fatal incident, but the bitterness and pain will remain with them. This will undermine the efforts to win their hearts and minds in the war against the insurgents if nothing is done quickly to convince the victims and their families that they will be treated with fairness and justice.
Photo by Abdulloh Benjakat