Weakness exposed in Thai insurgency
By Anthony Davis
In a nearly decade-long separatist conflict in southern Thailand which the military has been routinely surprised, bloodied and humiliated, the clash in Narathiwat province in the early hours of February 13 marked a rare reversal of roles. On the basis of solid operational intelligence and well-honed tactical skills, Royal Thai Marine Corps (RTMC) troops backed by naval special forces broke up a major insurgent assault on a camp, inflicting what was arguably the worst battlefield reverse the insurgents have suffered to date.
Most immediately, the loss of 16 dead including a senior local
commander and a similar number of firearms delivers a significant psychological and practical blow to the insurgent movement in the strategically important central Narathiwat area. However, the incident has also highlighted longer-term strategic problems confronting the Malay-Muslim separatist revolt that will likely shape the future of the conflict.
Launched at 1:00 am, the insurgent attack had planned to storm a RTMC rifle company base in Barei Neua sub-district of Narathiwat's Bacho district. The operation, involving an estimated 50 to 60 well-armed guerrillas in military fatigues and ballistic vests, was the latest in a series of large-scale attacks on security force bases in the province, aimed primarily at seizing weapons.
These operations have been termed the "Maruebo model" in a reference to the first such attack in Maruebo Tok sub-district of Ra-ngae district, Narathiwat on January 19, 2011. In that operation, an estimated 40 well organized insurgents overran part of a Royal Thai Army (RTA) company headquarters in an evening attack. The insurgent assault killed four soldiers and wounded six others and seized some 50 assault rifles and machine-guns.
In the latest attack, similar to "Maruebo model" operations in 2011 and 2012, the insurgents divided into three teams. Two attack groups first launched diversionary and then primary assaults from different sides of the base. A third team meanwhile cut an approach road with felled trees, anti-vehicle spikes and dummy improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to prevent reinforcements from reaching the base.
However, the usually tight operational security surrounding insurgent operations was on this occasion disastrously compromised. According to Thai military southern region spokesman Colonel Pramote Promin, security forces were tipped off by local villagers and "former insurgents fed up with the violence". Local military sources, however, noted it was the seizure of documents and sketches from a separatist operative killed in a February 9 raid that alerted authorities to an impending attack on the RTMC base.
It is also possible that the information on which the authorities acted came from a rare intelligence jackpot - a source within active insurgent ranks. Indeed, given that the marines were clearly aware not only of the location but also the date of the operation, it would appear that an insurgent insider may well have been the source of the information.
Which side fired the first shot is unclear but once the fight began insurgents in the main attack team advancing through a rubber plantation towards the front of the base were caught in lethal cross-fire both from Marines and navy SEALs behind the sand-bagged perimeter defenses, as well as from a second group of troops concealed in a single-story building about 100 meters outside of the base.
In preparation for the attack the marines had also set up seven M-18 Claymore directional anti-personnel mines which added to the carnage, according to military sources. Troops both inside and outside the base - approximately 110 in total - were equipped with night-vision goggles, although for some of the time the killing field at the front of the base was also illuminated by flares, according to the same sources.
Following a 20-minute exchange of fire, the attack broke up in confusion. Most of the guerrillas escaped in three waiting pick-up trucks, abandoning a fourth bullet-riddled vehicle and two motorcycles. Thirteen M-16 and AK-type assault rifles were also recovered from around the base.
The losses marked the separatists' most severe tactical reverse since the insurgency began in January 2004. While many more fighters - 101 in all - died in the string of dawn attacks on security force posts across Yala and Pattani on April 28, 2004 and in the Krue Se mosque incident later that day, the circumstances surrounding those events were entirely different from the latest debacle. There is solid evidence to suggest that the deaths in 2004 were in fact viewed by some within the separatist leadership as an acceptable means of mobilizing popular sympathy.
Most of those who died in 2004 were painfully ill-equipped, with many armed only with machetes. As a result of pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo and magic libations administered the night before, many charged to their deaths believing they were invisible or bullet-proof. Significantly, key organizers of those cult-inspired attacks - most notably Yusuf Rayalong, better known as Ustad Soh - did not join their cannon-fodder and are still active today.
In sharp contrast to the April 2004 attacks, the mainstream insurgency has been consistently risk-averse, mounting attacks only with a high probability of success and from behind a tight screen of operational security - precautions which will make the latest disaster particularly disconcerting. Between April 2004 and February 13 this year, the largest number of fighters killed in any single clash was five killed in a military raid on a jungle hideout in Yala province on April 19, 2012.
At one level the events in Bacho can be seen as a lucky break for the security forces and a one-off set-back for the separatist insurgency - a tactical defeat in a long war which, in any event, is becoming increasingly violent. Viewed from this perspective, the Bacho incident at very least reflected a striking over-confidence on the part of an underground movement which has become used to enjoying the tactical initiative and feels the war is going its way.
It is noteworthy that on March 9, 2012 the same insurgent leadership in the same area staged a similar "Maruebo model" assault on another RTMC base in Bacho district, breaching the perimeter defenses and wounding 11 Marines. Given that the RTMC is probably the most professional of the various security force services operating in the region and undoubtedly learned lessons from that attack, returning to hit another Marine base in the same district was fool-hardy under the best of circumstances.
However, it is also worth considering the events of February 13 in terms of the underlying dynamics of the southern insurgency. From this perspective, the Bacho debacle arguably marked an almost inevitable collision between two conflicting trends shaping the evolution of the conflict. In short, it was a bloodbath that at some point was bound to happen and may well happen again.
One trend clear since at least late 2011 is the manner in which the insurgents have been making concerted efforts to shift military operations to a higher level with the development of semi-regular forces that are well-equipped, reasonably well-trained and increasingly dressed in military fatigues. This process has involved concentrating small, six or seven man village-level units known as RKK (from the Malay runda kumpulan kecil) into larger 12-man sections (regu) and 36-man platoons (platong). Company-strong units (kompi) of more than 100 fighters and operating at district levels are also apparently on the drawing border.
Manifested both at the level of ambushes involving insurgents in section-strength (10-20 men), as well as more dramatically in 'Maruebo model' operations at platoon-strength and more, this development is broadly in line with a blueprint set out by strategists of the Co-ordinate faction of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front / BRN-C) which has played the leading role in terms of conceptualizing, planning and organizing the broad politico-military framework of the current revolt.
As Thai military intelligence officials have come to understand, BRN-C's organizational thinking has been clearly influenced by Maoist theories of a 'people's war'. In terms of the classic Maoist military model, however, the development of larger local guerrilla units and eventually insurgent regional forces is typically paralleled by the gradual carving out of 'liberated zones'. These are areas in which the insurgency has established a degree of political control over the local population and can deny easy access to state authorities, creating space for guerrilla forces to expand and launch wider attacks.
In southern Thailand, however, the separatist movement is nowhere near creating such 'liberated zones'. Nine years into the conflict, the insurgency appears trapped in a strategic dilemma of attempting to develop larger, harder-hitting guerrilla forces while its basic unit of military organization remains clandestine RKK teams embedded in local communities - villages where state authorities can still come and go relatively freely.
There are arguably two reasons for this situation. The first centers on the daunting practical problems of establishing 'liberated areas' in the small battle space of southern border provinces criss-crossed by roads and held down by a wide net of security force deployments.
Secondly, BRN-C strategy appears to have made an ideological virtue out of a village model of organization for revolt. To a large extent this is grounded in a reaction to the failed separatist campaign in the 1970s and 1980 when other insurgent groups, notably the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) and BRN-Congress, attempted to build guerrilla forces in the mountains and jungles of the south, effectively cutting themselves off from the civil population.
However, in a situation without 'liberated zones', operations involving larger forces depend critically on concentrating local village RKK elements stiffened by better-trained 'commandos' from across numerous districts. Significantly, on February 13 the insurgent force was drawn from all three conflict-hit southern provinces - Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala. Most fighters hailed from Bacho and neighboring Rueso in Narathiwat; but men from Raman district in Yala, and Saiburi and Ka-phor districts in Pattani were also reportedly involved.
Pulling together, organizing and later dispersing large numbers of fighters in this manner inevitably poses huge risks to operational security. Most fighters are based in village communities with the ever-present risk of government informers; they need to travel to an assembly point passing through numerous security force checkpoints and other villages; and hidden weapons and ammunition must be brought out from caches, transported and distributed before an operation. Indeed, given this array of risk, it is actually remarkable that a disaster on the scale of February 13 did not occur much earlier to the insurgent movement.
As the separatist underground confronts the dilemma of how to shift the war to a higher level without the space afforded by 'liberated zones', it is also being impacted by the second major trend in the evolution of the conflict: increasingly pro-active efforts by the security forces to disrupt and destroy the insurgents' village-level organizational bases. The past year has witnessed a marked rise in the number of raids mounted by district-level joint task-forces composed of army, police, para-military Rangers and civilian Territorial Defense Volunteers.
Seldom covered by the media, these rapidly conducted operations generally last only a few hours and target suspected safe-houses in villages and towns, along with huts, temporary shelters and arms caches in rubber plantations and jungle usually close to villages. Occasionally these operations trigger fire-fights and casualties; more frequently they result in arrests and interrogations which have slowly generated a cycle of notably improved intelligence.
Regardless of whether the leak behind the Bacho ambush stemmed specifically from villagers, captured documents or a deep throat within insurgent ranks, it is significant that it emerged amid a general cycle of improved government intelligence. For its part, the insurgent movement has attempted to counter this trend through targeted killings of known or suspected government informants and by creating a broad climate of fear. But in the absence of a sense of momentum towards a political or military endgame, it seems unlikely these tactics will be enough to stem the tide.
It is possible that the latest deaths in Bacho will serve to stimulate insurgent recruitment, as occurred in the aftermath of the Krue Se and Tak Bai killings of 2004. They will almost certainly provoke an angry backlash of retaliatory violence in the coming weeks. But none of this will provide answers to the central military dilemma of where the insurgents hope to take the conflict.
Short of such answers, southern Thailand's Malay insurgents may well risk the fate of fellow Muslim separatists in Indian Kashmir. Despite a broad groundswell of popular support, that insurgency was eventually worn down by a failure of strategy, growing war-weariness and the implacable presence of government security forces.
Anthony Davis is a Bangkok-based security analyst for IHS-Jane's.
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