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    Southeast Asia
     May 11, 2007
Page 1 of 2
Point of no return for southern Thailand
By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - It is now violently apparent that Thailand's military-appointed government's policy of reconciliation toward its three insurgency-hit majority-Muslim provinces Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala was never really implemented on the ground.

Instead, southern Thailand's three-year-old conflict is veering in a dangerous new direction, where the government is establishing a

growing number of loosely regulated local militias, and in response ethnic-Malay Muslim insurgent groups have commenced attacks against the economic lifelines of certain urban districts in an intensified effort to empty the restive region of ethnic-Thai and Sino-Thai Buddhists.

Yala province is emerging as the showcase and test case for the insurgents' new strategy, which, according to on-the-ground monitors who regularly communicate with insurgent leaders from the BRN-Coordinate group, aims soon to seize total control of the province, including the central government's administrative hub and the police's forward command center in the region. (The BRN-Coordinate is known to be the political arm of the traditional BRN - Barisan Revolusi Nasional or National Revolutionary Front - separatist organization.)

That strategy has been most visible in Yala's Betong district, [1] where recently insurgents and insurgent sympathizers blocked road access to the area and cut electricity and mobile-telephone signals for four straight nights. The blockade, which resulted in severe food and fuel shortages, was the first overt economic attack of the conflict. At the same time, the insurgents have increased the ferocity of their attacks on the civilian population, including a series of gruesome beheadings and burnings of their victims.

These harsh tactics have caused new waves of displaced Buddhists from both rural and semi-urban areas into Yala's main township, where they have established shelters in a number of Buddhist temples. The insurgents' aim "is no longer to just empty villages of Buddhists, but whole districts", said Sunai Phasuk, Thailand representative of the US-based rights lobby Human Rights Watch. "Their strength is rising each day and they are confident they can win what they are fighting for - a separate state."

With the controversy surrounding the military's new draft constitution, mounting tensions between hardline coup leaders and their appointed civilian administration led by Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, and exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's rear-guard propaganda offensive aimed at turning international opinion against the junta, dealing with the conflict in southern Thailand has fallen down on Bangkok's agenda.

Surayud still speaks of reconciliation, including a recent amnesty offer for insurgents who have not been involved in any crimes against the state. But the military's tactics on the ground have hardened in recent months, attended by a new rash of rights groups' allegations of mass arrests, state-sponsored disappearances and torture of detained militant suspects.

People in contact with the insurgent groups say they view Surayud's recent amnesty offer as a cynical government ploy to identify, arrest and even extrajudicially kill their members. All of the loosely aligned separatist groups operating across the region have given up hope of negotiating an autonomy settlement until a new government takes power after democratic elections scheduled for mid-December, they say.

Communal tipping point
The fear among those monitoring the conflict is that in the intervening seven months the restive region could tip toward full-blown communal violence. And both sides' tactics are aggressively pushing the conflict in that direction.

A series of violent incidents, including a mid-March assault on a minibus where passengers were removed from the vehicle and

Continued 1 2 

Dimming peace prospects for southern Thailand (Feb 16, '07)

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