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    Southeast Asia
     Jul 9, 2010
Thailand's forgotten war simmers
By Jason Johnson

PATTANI, southern Thailand - Clashes on the streets of Bangkok earlier this year between anti-government protesters and security forces have diverted attention from the shadowy Malay Muslim insurgency in the southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, where some 4,100 people have died since January 2004.

By some measures, the cell-based insurgents appeared to ramp up their guerrilla tactics coincident with the unrest in the national capital. Three bombings in Yala town in May and early June left four people dead and about 100 injured. On July 2 and 3, two separate bombings killed seven security personnel and one other person, prompting Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to hold an urgent meeting with security agencies overseeing the restive region.

According to Deep South Watch, a Pattani-based think-tank that

 

monitors and analyzes the violence, there were more incidents in June than any other month since August 2007. While this apparent spike in violence has aroused some media attention, the statistics are somewhat misleading.

A closer examination shows that 44 incidents in June were small-scale disturbances, such as tire burnings and scattering spikes on roads, rather than bombings. Nor has the rise in incidents resulted in a jump in the number of deaths and injuries; conflict-related casualties have fluctuated month-to-month, but their numbers have remained relatively consistent since 2009. And the levels continue to be dramatically lower than in 2007, the most violent year of the conflict.

Some analysts, including political scientist Srisompob Jitpiromsiri from Prince of Songkla University's Pattani campus, attribute the recent uptick in violence to insurgent efforts to recapture Bangkok's attention and force the government into some sort of settlement.

"They are trying to increasingly pressure the government," said Jitpiromsiri, who also serves as Deep South Watch's director.

However, there is still widespread confusion concerning whether the insurgent networks operate under some kind of structured leadership. Three detainees interviewed by Asia Times Online at a military interrogation and reconciliation center in Pattani said that they were involved with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional - Coordinate (BRN-C) - the group many analysts believe is leading the insurgent charge.

Many other detainees claimed that they did not know of any other insurgents outside of their immediate cells or even if they were part of a broader insurgent organization. However, a captured alleged leader of two cells and alleged economic council member claimed the insurgents hoped for either the United Nations or the Organization of Islamic Conference to intervene in the protracted conflict.

They added that the insurgents had no interest in linking up with anti-Western terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah or al-Qaeda, as such connections would discredit their purely domestic aspirations in the eyes of international observers. Journalist Don Pathan and academic Joseph Liow, who recently co-published a monograph on the insurgency movement, arrived at similar conclusions.

While some actors in the shadowy insurgency may have lofty goals of pressuring Bangkok through international intervention, evidence shows that most incidents of violence are driven largely by local conflicts. Pattani-based researcher and anthropologist Marc Askew argues that personal, political or criminal interests often intersect in a broader "market of violence" with the war between Pattani Malay Muslim insurgents and state security forces.

While understanding violence in Thailand's far south continues to be a source of contention and confusion among analysts, security forces' large presence in the region continues to attract widespread criticism. For as much as the security forces had apparently made headway in curtailing violence since the latter part of 2007 - and most especially in 2008 - some of their methods are highly controversial.

The application of an emergency decree and martial law has given security forces broad powers to detain and interrogate individuals with near-blanket protection from legal prosecution for abuses. The laws have long been lambasted by Pattani Malay Muslim nationalist activists, local and international human-rights organizations and the media for violating legal and human rights and contributing to authorities'' alleged abuse of detainees.

That has fueled resentment even among the majority of Malay Muslims who negotiate their multiple Pattani Malay, Muslim and Thai identities in ways that are ignored in the romanticist, groupist and often sensationalist portrayals of Malay Muslims as noble resistors to the oppressive Thai state.

Despite such widespread local grievances and international rights groups' condemnation, Abhisit's statement in January 2009 that his government would strongly consider removing the laws has so far proven more rhetoric than substance. Although earlier this year the Ministry of Defense sought security officials' opinions on dissolving the laws, most replied that they were still necessary to effectively provide security and upend insurgent activities.

Presumptuous activism
Allegations of abuses by the security forces against Malay Muslim detainees came to the fore again when 25-year-old Sulaiman Naesa, a Malay Muslim detainee held at the military's Ingkhayut camp in Pattani province, was found dead hanging in a detention cell on May 30.

Sulaiman's father and four local human-rights advocates, including a member of Thailand's National Human Rights Commission's sub-committee on the south, witnessed an immediate examination conducted by a forensic specialist from the police, a medical doctor from the military camp and another medical doctor from nearby Nongjik Hospital. Officials from the Central Institute of Forensic Science, led by Porntip Rojanasunant, also investigated for DNA evidence of possible foul play.

The two doctors concluded that the hanging caused Sulaiman to die from asphyxiation. The police forensic specialist asked everyone in attendance if they questioned whether Sulaiman committed suicide, but no one did. However, he suggested to Sulaiman's father and the local rights advocates that a more thorough autopsy could be conducted at the Prince of Songkla University Hospital, located in Hat Yai city. The father decided against it, and later refused one other doctor's similar recommendation.

Soon after the incident, the father and the local rights advocates questioned the investigators' conclusion to the Thai media, leading to rampant speculation that Sulaiman was murdered or at least tortured by authorities at the camp. Two of the advocates and the father discussed the incident in a video posted on Youtube and the Deep South Watch website. They felt that there were signs of abuse on Sulaiman's body, including bruising on his lower arms and legs, a cut on the lowest part of his back, blood and semen on his genitals, a wound on his neck, and what appeared to be a brand on his upper back.

Also fueling suspicions that his death was not a suicide was the fact that Sulaiman's feet were touching the floor, his neck was not stiff, and his tongue had not protruded far out of his mouth. More than two weeks after the incident, United States-based rights group Human Rights Watch released a statement citing "visible signs of torture" on Sulaiman's body.

Others, however, have at least privately contested that assessment. A member of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT) sub-committee on the South told Asia Times Online in late June that his non-governmental organization knew that Sulaiman committed suicide, and that they just wanted to know what caused the young man to take his own life. Suicide, he emphasized, is considered a sin among Muslims.
His group's assessment, however, was not the consensus view of the NHRCT's sub-committee on the south. At a press conference following the sub-committee's June 25 hearing on the incident in Bangkok, NHRCT chair Amara Pongsapich did not characterize Sulaiman's death as a suicide. According to an article published by the Isra News Center, Pongsapich said that "the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr Sulaiman were suspicious and thus justified further investigation".

Two officials at Ingkhayut camp, including the director of the interrogation and reconciliation center, Colonel Piyawat Narkvanich, told Asia Times Online that the sub-committee's findings were a strategy to discredit the military in an effort to close down the center. Over the past several years, both local and international human-rights organizations have interviewed many former detainees who have claimed they were tortured while held and interrogated at Ingkhayut camp.

Forensic pathologist Porntip also briefly attended the sub-committee hearing. She told Asia Times Online that she had explained to the committee that only Sulaiman's DNA was found on the towel used as the liturgy for his hanging, and that the apparent bruising was in fact "lividity", or the effect of gravity on blood after death. The doctor from Nongjik hospital came to similar conclusions in her autopsy report, noting that the bleeding resulted from petechiae hemorrhaging.

Porntip also informed those in attendance that in the case of hangings full suspension is not necessary to cause death and is especially common in prison settings. She surmised that some sub-committee members' disbelief that Sulaiman took his own life may have stemmed from their presumptions of military abuse.

On the defensive
Nonetheless, the new allegations have put the military on the defensive about their treatment of detainees and, more broadly, its use of the emergency decree and martial law. The military's credibility has also been tested by its arguments that the number of insurgents and active supporters - recently estimated at about 9,400 - demonstrates a lack of support for the movement. This focus obscures a critical distinction between support with and involvement in the insurgency and actual political preferences.

For instance, at the same detention center where Sulaiman died, detainees from insurgent stronghold areas told Asia Times Online that locals feared the repercussions of joining with insurgents because of security forces' substantially improved intelligence. However, the majority of people in these same areas still supported the insurgents' nationalist agenda of achieving independence from the Thai state, they claimed.

Several detainees conceded that even though insurgent leaders lured new recruits through appeals to full-fledged independence from Bangkok, virtually no recruits or anyone else believed the goal was attainable. Nonetheless, two officials at Ingkhayut camp said a "new generation" of recruits had emerged over the past two years, many of whom were as young as 16 and included young women.

Although the military has acquired better intelligence on insurgent activities following a program based on cordon-and-sweep operations that began in mid-June 2007, these same officials admitted that they had very little knowledge of this new wave of insurgents. With a seeming endless supply of new and increasingly mysterious recruits, security forces in the far south will continue to face an uphill struggle to restore stability.

However much local conflicts of interests may motivate individual incidents, and however vague the insurgents' goals and structure may seem, there is still clearly a movement in the far south that is seeking to wrestle authority from the state. And with Abhisit's government preoccupied with addressing the massive political divisions outside of Thailand's far south, the insurgency shows no signs of abating.

Jason Johnson is an independent researcher and consultant covering southernmost Thailand. He is currently based in Pattani province, southern Thailand, and may be reached at jrj.johnson@gmail.com

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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