Buddhist woman burned alive in Muslim Thailand

Yala, Thailand - A Buddhist woman was shot and burned alive in Thailand's violence-torn Muslim-majority south on Wednesday, prompting angry protests in front of visiting army chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin.

Watcharaporn Boonmak (26) was ambushed by gunmen as she rode her motorcycle through a Muslim village in Yala, one of the three southern provinces roiled by three years of separatist insurgency in which more than 2 000 people have been killed.

"She might have been shot in the stomach before they set fire to her and her motorcycle," a Yala police officer, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters by telephone.

One of her relatives told Reuters that witnesses at the scene heard Watcharaporn, a garage clerk, screaming and crawling along the road for help but nobody dared respond for fear of reprisals.

Even by the standards of a conflict that has seen well over a dozen civilians beheaded, it was a shocking incident.

"It is the most cruel and brutal thing I've seen in my life," Jaran Kongchuay said as he joined hundreds of Buddhists bearing Watcharaporn's charred body on a hospital stretcher to the provincial hall, demanding action from Sonthi.

"Beheading or burning alive, no one is arrested!" one of their placards read. "Will the government please pay closer attention to the three southern border provinces?" another said.

Sonthi promised help for Watcharaporn's family and vowed to hunt down her killers -- even though arrests and successful prosecutions in the region, where 80% of people ethnic Malay Muslims, are extremely rare.

In the same village in December, two male Buddhist teachers were shot dead in their truck 300m from the village school. Their bodies were also torched.

Increasingly brutal

Army spokesperson Colonel Acra Tiproch said the insurgents, who have never made their aims public, had become increasingly brutal towards civilians in response to a police and military campaign to root out militant cells.

One of the main problems for the mainly Buddhist security forces is that they receive little or no assistance from the Muslim population.

Watcharaporn's murder is likely to inflame tensions between Muslims and Buddhists in the region, an independent sultanate until annexed by Bangkok a century ago.

On Monday, Buddhist defence volunteers shot and killed four Muslims -- including two teenage boys -- after an altercation with mourners leaving the funeral of a Muslim village chief who had been blown up in a booby-trapped vehicle earlier in the day.

While regretting the incident, details of which remain murky, army spokesperson Acra said the volunteers' actions were justified.

"They were acting in self-defence as the Muslim mourners were hurling stones at the Buddhist villagers," he said.

On Tuesday, security forces arrested 11 Muslim men in a raid on two villages in Yala, seizing five firearms, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and 200kg of fertiliser thought to be for making bombs, Acra said.