Page 1 of 2 AN ATol INVESTIGATION Southern test for new Thai leader
By Brian McCartan and Shawn W Crispin
YALA and BANGKOK - New Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva has promised to
promote national unity and reconciliation after years of political strife. How
his government approaches the ongoing Muslim insurgency in the country's three
southernmost provinces will be a crucial component in any campaign, one that
could quickly put Abhisit at loggerheads with an increasingly assertive
Successive Thai governments have failed to resolve the debilitating armed
conflict pitting ethnic Malay Muslim rebels against government forces in the
provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat
and Yala. According to figures compiled by Deep South Watch, a group of
academics at the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani, there have been
8,442 violent incidents since the insurgency flared in January 2004 though
mid-October 2008, resulting in 3,214 deaths and 5,249 injuries.
The military has recently claimed success through "surge" tactics, which since
mid-2007 have entailed the deployment of an additional 20,000 security
personnel to bolster the 30,000 already stationed in the restive region. The
extra boots on the ground have been deployed towards large-scale sweep
operations, conducted though combined army-police-paramilitary units.
Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) spokesman Thanathip Sawangsaeng
said in October that since the sweeps had been launched, violence had abated,
with 1,304 attacks reported from October 2007 to September 2008, compared to
the 2,774 recorded over the same period the previous year. According to
humanitarian groups monitoring the situation, army commander General Anupong
Paochinda has predicted the military will have brought the situation under
control by the end of next year.
Anupong has made the southern insurgency the military's main focus and has
announced a four-year plan for achieving peace. During the initial two-year
phase, spanning mid-2007 to mid-2009, ramped up military operations aim to
disrupt insurgency networks and bring the spiraling violence under control. The
second phase, from 2010 to 2011, is slated to focus on rehabilitating
communities and economic development.
Anupong has also reorganized the army's structure in the southern region by
assigning Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces as areas of responsibility for
the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Army Commands, respectively. Units from the three commands
are normally responsible for security in the central, northeast and north and
their assignment for the south marked a sidelining of the 4th Army Command,
which usually provides security in the area.
Anupong also handed down marching orders that soldiers with the rank of major
general take control of operations in each southern province, as opposed to the
previous lower-ranking colonels. His plan has also called for greater use of
paramilitary and rangers, bolstering by this October their numbers from 7,500
to 9,000 personnel. Often lacking the discipline of army regulars, the rangers
in particular have been criticized by local Muslim leaders and human-rights
groups for heavy-handed tactics and human-rights abuses, particularly in
controversial operations that have cordoned off villages, searched houses and
taken away suspected militants for interrogation.
There are preliminary indications that Abhisit's government may take a more
conciliatory tack, one that prioritizes a political rather than a military
solution to the conflict. Newly appointed Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said
at a December 19 conference that the new government would aim to "formalize"
negotiations with rebel groups and consider the formation of a new ministry to
oversee the three southern provinces, similar to the British government's
Northern Ireland Ministry and Japan's Ministry for Okinawa affairs.
He also indicated the new government's policy would be "better coordinated at
the bureaucratic level", yet "not left to bureaucrats" whether "in civilian or
military clothing". Kasit said that Democrat party representatives had in
recent months met with influential Muslim groups in Indonesia and officials and
opposition party members in neighboring Malaysia, which has been accused in the
past of harboring militants in its bordering northernmost provinces. He claimed
to have secured an intelligence-sharing arrangement with Indonesia which could
now be implemented with the Democrats in control of government in Bangkok.
To implement those policies, Abhisit will necessarily need to assert executive
control over southern policy, including most crucially regaining civilian
command over ISOC, which maintains control over the military, police and
security apparatus in the region. The security agency is one of three
government bodies tasked with controlling the situation in the deep south. The
other two bodies, the Civil-Police-Military (CPM) and the Southern Border
Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC), handle respectively intelligence
coordination and "hearts-and-minds" programs. The SBPAC also maintains the
capacity to mediate local grievances with government officials and policies.
Whether Abhisit will have enough clout to make those changes is in doubt,
particularly in light of reports that Anupong played a role in bringing
coalition partners together under the Democrat party banner. When asked by Asia
Times Online at the same academic conference what role the military played in
establishing the new government, Kasit replied tersely, "I don't know. I don't
Dating to its suppression of communist rebels, the ISOC's head has
traditionally been the army commander. Under a new internal security law passed
in 2007, however, the prime minister took over as the security agency's nominal
Samak Sundaravej, the first democratically elected premier following the 2006
coup that ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in a bid to curry favor
with the top brass, put Anupong in charge of ISOC in March 2008. That stance
was maintained by prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, who took the helm in
September and was urged by Anupong on at least two occasions to resign his
The ISOC has since become heavily weighted towards the military and is
currently commanded by army chief of staff and former 1st Army commander
General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is widely expected to succeed Anupong as army
commander when he is mandated to retire in 2010. Although both are considered
highly professional soldiers, human-rights groups have raised concerns about
the growing number of disappearances, detentions, reports of torture and
extrajudicial killings that have accompanied ISOC-orchestrated sweeps.
US rights lobby Human Rights Watch said in a March report that human-rights
violations by the Thai army had increased since the sweeps began. Another
human-rights group with extensive knowledge of the situation in the south that
requested anonymity due to fears of possible reprisals alleges that in addition
to mass arrests, soldiers have often used excessive force, damaged property and
looted cash, household items, motorbikes and mobile phones during sweep
The military declared martial law in the wake of the 2006 coup and it was never
repealed for the deep south. Together with an emergency decree still in force
over the region, security forces have the legal authority to arrest suspected
militants for an initial period of seven days and then an additional 30 days to
conduct investigations. The emergency decree also controversially provides for
immunity from prosecution for security forces.
Reports of abuses have been met with stonewalling by government agencies and
the military. In other instances, individuals and human-rights organizations
have been threatened for reporting on alleged official abuses. Those threatened
groups hold up the example of Imam Yapa, who died as a result of alleged
torture by soldiers after being arrested in Narathiwat on March 19. He was
taken to the 39th Task Force camp in Ru Soe district where he was allegedly
killed two days later.
Despite prior pledges by Anupong to punish soldiers found responsible for
abuses, the army has repeatedly blocked a judicial inquiry into his death by
claiming records have been destroyed and a lack of knowledge about who was
involved or what orders were given.
Despite those criticisms, security analysts say the sweeps have achieved
military results, especially with regard to disrupting insurgent communications
and their ability to carry out major coordinated attacks. The army claims its
success is due to greater trust between security forces and the local
population, which it claims has recently provided more information on insurgent
networks and movements. It also claims that it is acting on information gleaned
from interrogations of militants and defectors who have switched sides due to
internal divisions within the insurgent movement.
Police Lieutenant Colonel Sakkarin Bampensamai, deputy superintendent of Yala's
main police station, told Asia Times Online that the government had learned
from the past four years of conflict and now knows better how to solve the
problem, including through police-organized community relations projects. He
also cited a reduction in the number of shootings and bombings in Yala town,
from 10 shootings and 30 bombings in 2007 to only one shooting and 15 bombings
up to November 2008.
"We can't cut off the three southern provinces. We have to contain and control
them," he said.
At the same time, insurgents have claimed in leaflets and statements to
villagers that their attacks are often in retaliation for military and police
abuses, including the torture of their followers while held in detention.
Despite the stepped-up sweeps, insurgent groups have shown that they are still
capable of large, if more infrequent, attacks.
That includes Saturday's 13-kilogram bomb attack on Yala's Parkview Hotel,
which exploded prematurely and wounded three people. The attack followed the
November 4 triple bomb blast in Narathiwat's Sukhirin district, which killed
one and injured 71 people, 30 of them seriously. And the region is still
shaking from the March bombing of the CS Pattani Hotel, where most foreigners
who visit the region stay. While fewer in number, it seems recent insurgent
attacks have aimed for more spectacular targets.
The three main militant factions operating in the south include the Barisan
Revolusi Nasional Koordinasi (BRN-C), the Pattani United Liberation
Organization (PULO) and the Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Patani (GMIP) or the
Islamic Mujahideen Movement of Pattani. The BRN-C is believed to be the largest
group, with an extensive grassroots network. There is, however, disagreement
over how much control these groups have over the actual shooters and bombers.
While the army claims to have disabled insurgent networks, some analysts,
including Leeds University Thailand expert Duncan McCargo, argue that the
movement has grown to be highly decentralized. The cells that carry out many of
the attacks, while capable of carrying out occasional coordinated strikes
across the three violence-prone provinces, often do not know each other