Suspected Islamist separatists shot dead two Buddhist monks and wounded another two in an attack on a Buddhist monastery in the restive southern Thai province of Narathiwat.
Local authorities said several gunmen dressed in black entered Wat Rattananuparb unseen from the back by a stream around 7.30 p.m. on Jan. 18 and started shooting at resident monks.
The temple’s abbot, who was a prominent monk, was one of the dead.
For a decade and a half Islamist separatists have been waging a war of attrition against Thai authorities and local Buddhists in Thailand’s three Muslim-majority southernmost provinces.
Since the outbreak of an Islamist insurgency in 2004, more than 7,000 people of both faiths have died and 13,000 have been injured.
At least 23 Buddhist monks have also been killed and another 20 wounded in the troubled region by suspected insurgents belonging to the Islamist separatist movement Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front or BRN).
Islamist militants routinely target Buddhist civilians, including schoolteachers, in an effort to drive them away from the three provinces bordering Malaysia.
Rights groups have condemned the attack on the Narathiwat temple.
“The ghastly attack on Buddhist monks by insurgents in Thailand’s deep south is morally reprehensible and a war crime, and those responsible should be held to account,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“The insurgents’ 15-year campaign of deliberately attacking Buddhist and Muslim civilians cannot be justified.”
In the three provinces Buddhist monks are routinely guarded by security personnel who also accompany them on their daily alms rounds.
Yet despite stepped-up security measures, the attack indicates that insurgents retain the capacity to strike at relatively well-guarded sites with impunity.
In an effort to pacify the restive region, Thailand’s military-led government recently launched what it calls a “peace dialogue” with members of Muslim secessionist groups including the BRN.
In response to renewed overtures from the Thai army, however, the militants, who are ethnic Malays, seem to have intensified their attacks.
On Jan. 10, insurgents traveling on motorbikes shot dead four Muslim security guards at a primary school in Pattani while classes were in progress.
Rights activists have accused Thai security forces of worsening the situation by alienating local Muslims through heavy-handed tactics such as summary arrests in trying to deal with the insurgency.
“Both Muslims and Buddhists in southern Thailand are caught in the cycle of abuses and reprisals by insurgents and Thai security forces,” Adams said. “The Thai government needs to prosecute the atrocities by its own forces as well as those by the insurgents if this horrific violence is to stop.”
Analysts are warning that Islamist insurgents’ attacks on Buddhist sanctuaries might trigger an escalation of tit-for-tat violence between Muslims and Buddhists.
“Regardless of the BRN’s specific objectives with this attack, the Thai government would be very foolish not to consider the danger of a toxic communal atmosphere in the south which could get out of control,” Anthony Davis, a defense analyst, told Reuters news agency.