South Thailand: war drums before fig leaves
Malay Muslim rebels in the country's southernmost region have ramped up attacks in a well-coordinated show of force before suing for new peace talks
When in war one offers gifts of peace, it always makes sense to also carry a big stick. In the run up to a rare call for peace talks from south Thailand’s dominant but shadowy Malay-Muslim separatist faction, the Barisan Nasional Revolusi (BRN), the big stick they wield was brandished with characteristic ferocity.
Following months of relative calm, much of it imposed by unusually heavy monsoon rains and widespread flooding, a late March-early April wave of militant attacks across the southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla all bore the hallmarks of the BRN’s military wing and appeared to underscore that any suggestion of peace was not coming from a position of weakness.
The attack waves opened on March 30 with a brazen drive-by attack on the district police station at Ra-ngae in Narathiwat province. Insurgents dressed as workmen and riding in the back of a pick-up truck poured automatic fire onto an early morning parade of police in front of the station, killing one officer and wounding five others, including the station chief.
A far larger attack unfolded shortly after 1 am on the morning of April 3 when an estimated 40-50 fighters closed in on a security force post on the main highway south of Krong Pinang district in Yala province. In the largest assault on a base since an attack on Narathiwat’s Cho Airong district in October 2015, when a hospital was invaded, the insurgents stormed the post using assault rifles and improvised grenades.
Twelve police officers were wounded before the attackers withdrew carrying one of their own wounded with them. Using tactics that have typified larger BRN operations from the beginning of the conflict in 2004, the attackers covered their retreat by felling trees and scattering iron spikes across the road, and detonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) attached to roadside concrete electricity poles.
The most telling operation, however, was a wave of well-coordinated attacks in the late evening of April 6 and the early hours of April 7 that pointedly underscored BRN’s apparently undiminished capacity for region-wide command and control of insurgent forces.
Targeted primarily on the region’s electricity grid, the operation struck 19 districts in all four insurgency-affected provinces. While causing no casualties, the blitz involved bombs blasts, widespread incidents of arson and hit-and-run small-arms fire attacks.
As seen by security force officials in the region, the sheer scope of the offensive pointed to a new intake of younger newly-trained fighters, largely unidentified on intelligence data bases that have been built up over the years. That in itself appears to point to an ongoing insurgent capacity for recruitment among the region’s youth that can only worry Bangkok.
The official assessment that many of the foot soldiers involved in the latest offensive were “new generation” fighters appeared to be supported by the number of IEDs used which failed to detonate, suggesting an apparent decline in once robust bomb-making skills.
In the assault on the Krong Pinang base, five of the eight improvised grenades hurled into the base failed to explode, while eight pipe-bombs attached to electricity poles malfunctioned. Similarly, in the coordinated bombings of April 6 and 7, there were numerous cases of IEDs attached to high-voltage pylons which either failed to topple the structure or failed to detonate altogether.
As projected by BRN, however, the ongoing violence is merely business as usual. Asked by Asia Times to comment on the overall military situation, Abdulkarim Khalid, a spokesman for the party’s ‘Information Department’, denied in email communication that there had been any appreciable change in recent years.
“Our activities can still take place as usual in accordance with our strategy,” he wrote. “The proof of this is that for 13 years we have been able to conduct military operations…despite the all-out pressure of the Thai government.”
He also appeared interested in tempering assessments that the wave of bomb attacks that struck tourist resorts in Thailand’s southern-central provinces last August marked a watershed change in the movement’s targeting policy and possibly heralded a new focus on economic targets well beyond the contested border provinces.
“BRN is very clear about the geographical scope limiting military operations and we do not operate beyond areas that have been defined,” he noted in a manner that appeared to confirm a strategy of restraint that has characterized BRN targeting from the beginning of the insurgency.
He added, however, that “in certain situations and certain contexts it is not impossible for BRN to act outside the designated area.”
Khalid also dismissed media speculation over recent changes at the top of BRN’s leadership, much of which has focused on the purported emergence of a military hard-liner, Abdullah Wan Mat Noor, as the new chairman of the party’s ruling council or Dewan Pimpinan Parti (DPP).
“BRN is a secret organization and it is very difficult for anyone to discover the real inner workings of the party especially in terms of the leadership,“ noted Khalid. “Our leadership is not comprised of specific or prominent individuals but is rather a collective leadership, i.e. a council.”