Southeast Asiainsurgency

Thailand’s Muslim insurgency roars back to life

Surge in lethal attacks in nation's southernmost region underscores a lack of progress in resolving the conflict after four years of military rule

Narathiwat, August 29, 2018 3:50 PM (UTC+8)
A Thai soldier stands watch over bullet markers in front of Rangae district's police station after a gun attack by suspected militants left one police officer dead and three wounded in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat, March 30, 2017. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

A new surge in lethal attacks in Thailand’s southernmost region has underscored the lack of progress in resolving the insurgent conflict after four years of military junta rule.

The restive region – spanning the three Muslim majority provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat as well as areas of neighboring Buddhist majority Songkhla – had seen a lull in violence, including over a year-long national period of mourning from October 2016-17 for deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Now, the insurgency appears to have sprung back to lethal life as the military takes credit for the relative calm. This month, in Pattani province’s volatile Yarang district, a Muslim village defense volunteer was shot dead by an unidentified gunman who fired several shots at close range as the victim was entering his makeshift post.

Five days earlier, in neighboring Yala province’s Krong Pinang district, a fierce gunfight ended in the death of two insurgents. Five other insurgent suspects in the vicinity were apprehended by authorities for questioning and are still being held.

On August 11, in Pattani’s Bacho district, a mother and daughter were shot dead at point blank range by assailants who stole their motorbike and jewelry.

The two victims were Buddhists, often the targets of Muslim insurgents fighting variously for independence or autonomy from the Buddhist majority Thai state.

Thai Muslims hold a prayer at a mosque in Nartathiwat on August 13, 2018 to protest the fatal shooting of a woman and her daughter on August 11 in the restive southern province. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

Weeks earlier, a gunman riddled a pickup truck with M-16 automatic rifle fire, killing the driver and wounding the passenger in the same village. The two men were Muslims; the assailants are still unidentified.

The uptick in violence was barely covered in local media, underlining the lack of attention given to a decades-old conflict that is estimated by some counts to have taken more than 7,000 lives since reigniting in January 2004.

Compared to the insurgent violence levels seen in other global conflict zones that have dominated international news headlines since the 9/11 terror attacks in America, Thailand’s steady but deadly insurgency is more localized and low intensity.

The lack of media and public attention to the so-called Deep South has played to the government’s hand, as policymakers in Bangkok and military commanders in the field tout their counterinsurgency strategies as a creeping success story.

They note that the number of insurgency-related violent incidents has dropped significantly over the years, from over 4,000 in 2007 to an estimated 500 in 2017. Those figures are largely consistent with independent conflict monitoring groups, including the Pattani-based Deep South Watch.

Military officials also claim that their current peace initiative, accompanied with hearts and minds-geared development schemes, has undermined grass roots support for separatist insurgents, including the shadowy Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), which has so far refused to enter into peace negotiations.

Thai soldiers paint over separatist messages sprayed on a bridge by suspected militants in the Yingo district of Narathiwat province. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

It is not immediately clear, however, that is the case. While the fall in incidents is no doubt one reason why the junta has put the conflict and its suppression on a policy back burner, BRN sources maintain that the drop in violence was their own decision and not due to the government’s counterinsurgency operations.

At the same time, BRN leaders acknowledge that there is a heavy cost to using violence that sometimes results in civilian casualties. They also must contend with a growing web of local informants who are paid by police and military to ferret out their networks.

When such secret informants are targeted for retribution, sometimes lethally, the BRN risks losing grass roots support for attacks on seemingly innocent civilians, they say.

That’s driven a certain shift in insurgent tactics. Rather than carrying out small-scale violent incidents and disturbances that contribute to security force death tolls, as at the height of the conflict in 2007, combatants have been ordered by insurgent leaders to make their hits count, both through greater intensity and psychological impact.

The insurgent aim: to undermine security force confidence and make areas ungovernable until the BRN decides its next tactical move. Like all insurgencies, the BRN says, their operations and attacks are communicative actions.

The conflict is now arguably in a holding pattern of tit-for-tat strikes between militants and government security forces, with neither side winning a clear tactical advantage. BRN representatives say recent attacks prove they can still strike and ratchet up at will.

A bombing spree on nearly 20 ATM machines throughout the region in May was one example of how insurgents continue to target perceived symbols of the Bangkok centric state. Most of the targeted ATMs were also just meters away from military and police checkpoints.

They have also shown that they are capable of hitting areas outside the Deep South, causing tremors in nearby beach tourism areas popular with foreign tourists. In August 2016, BRN militants carried out a wave of bomb and arson attacks in seven provinces in the upper south region in a retaliatory strike.

A bomb attack at an evening food market in Pattani in October 2016 that killed one and injured 20 was also launched in retaliation for a dragnet operation in Bangkok that rounded up over 100 Patani-based, ethnic Malay youth.

Meanwhile, a bomb blast at a pork stall at a Yala province fresh market in January 2017 that killed three and injured 20 others was also in retaliation for the round-up of 50 or so young men in Yala’s Than To district following an arson attack on a passenger bus.

Separatists acknowledge that their attacks violate international norms and humanitarian principles, as frequently raised by rights groups like Human Rights Watch.

The aftermath of a suspected insurgent bomb blast outside a supermarket in Pattani, May 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Surapan Boonthanom

Militants generally shy from targeting local officials, particularly those who fall under the ministry of interior’s chain of command, all of whom are authorized to bear arms if they choose. These local officials include para-military defense volunteers, village chiefs and their deputies.

Recent history shows, however, that militants have no qualm about killing local officials if they cross the line and spy for the military or police.

The junta government’s heavy-handed tactics and the insurgents’ ability and willingness to ramp up pressure through violence means the conflict is no closer to resolution under military rule.

Insurgents say that’s because the military regime is only interested in using the peace process as a means for identifying insurgent groups’ shadowy and secretive leaders. The BRN is unwilling to meet government representatives face-to-face for talks, relying instead on intermediaries.

Yet BRN members say they are interested in learning from the international community about norms, including in relation to humanitarian law, rules of military engagement, and codes of conduct for combatants, as a way to enhance their legitimacy.

Senior Thai officials say the government may be willing to allow foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations to play such a role, though they also fear foreign involvement would enhance the BRN’s international standing without it making any concessions to first stop the violence.

But until a decision on the matter is reached and both sides agree to talk rather than fight, Thailand’s southernmost war-torn provinces will remain stuck in low-level lethal strife for the foreseeable future.

Don Pathan is a consultant and security analyst based in Thailand. The opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

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