Page 2 of 2 Meaningless ceasefire in South Thailand
By Anthony Davis
In terms of a strategic response, however, the insurgents held fire and continued to prepare for a riposte that had almost certainly been planned since before the beginning of the fasting month. This was a region-wide offensive that began on July 31 and extended over the final days of Ramadan.
Typically, this wave of attacks relied primarily on the use of IEDs, a tactic honed over a decade of trial and error but now taken to a new level of intensity. The eight-day period from July 31 to August 7 saw a total of 35 IED incidents across the region, a dramatic spike from an average of 24 such attacks over the course of an
entire month during the first half of 2013. (The monthly average for IED incidents during 2012 was 20, while in 2011 the figure was 21.6.)
Notably affected were the black-spot districts of Bannang Satar, Muang and Yaha in Yala province, and Ra-ngae and Rueso in Narathiwat. By contrast, attacks in Pattani were more broadly spread, affecting eight of the province's 12 districts.
Accounting for 87% of the 40 IED incidents during Ramadan as a whole, these operations were focused almost entirely on security forces through roadside and landmine attacks on patrols and vehicle movements. The main impact of the offensive came in the first four days, which saw an average of nearly seven IED attacks per day, an operational tempo not seen before in the region. Nine security force personnel were killed and a further 49 wounded.
Even before Ramadan, IED attacks had become notably harder hitting as the result of two factors. First, a growing reliance on two specific triggering techniques - battery-charged command wires and remote detonation by radio transceivers - which have made for increased accuracy. The proliferation of radio transceivers since they were first introduced in 2009 has been particularly striking. Today they have become the single most common IED triggering technique, edging out the mobile phone techniques favored in the early years of the conflict.
The second factor has been a growing resort to extremely heavy IEDs weighing between 50 to 80 kilograms that are packed into large cooking gas tanks and deployed as landmines. These devices have the capacity to demolish soft-skinned army trucks and pick-ups, and cripple armored personnel carriers. On August 3, a device estimated at around 80kg targeted a South African-built Reva APC in Ra-ngae district in Narathiwat. Triggered by a radio transceiver, the blast flipped the 7.8-ton vehicle upside down, wounding all six troops inside but remarkably killing none.
In addition to vehicle movements, roadside IEDs have also shifted to target foot patrols, another tactic clearly reflected in the Ramadan offensive. Foot patrols by both RTA regulars and para-military Rangers - now spearheading rural counter-insurgency operations - have become an increasingly important element in efforts to counter IED-led ambushes and protect the movement of frequently targeted school teachers.
IED attacks on foot patrols have generally involved smaller devices in the 5-7kg range concealed at the roadside or, in some incidents, built into concrete milestones. Typically such an attack on a patrol will critically wound or kill the soldier closest to the device while often injuring several others.
The offensive also brought the single largest and most economically destructive wave of arson attacks in the past decade, with a pointed focus on large Sino-Thai owned commercial enterprises. A long-standing tactic in the separatist campaign to render the border provinces ungovernable, earlier arson sprees had generally targeted state schools - viewed as a key element in Bangkok's efforts to assimilate the region into the national mainstream - and local government buildings.
On August 2, at exactly 3am, well-coordinated attacks struck five districts across three provinces: Muang (capital) district of Yala; Khok Po and Nong Chik districts of Pattani; and Thepa and Saba Yoi districts of Songkhla. Muang district of Yala was the hardest hit with blazes around Yala city hitting a rubber processing plant, a wood plant and a plastics factory with damages estimated at well over 100 million baht.
Most of these incidents during late Ramadan were reported in the local media as individual incidents while their cumulative significance was largely overlooked. The offensive underscored a significant degree of command-and-control over forces across all insurgency-affected provinces, including areas of Songkhla. It also demonstrated a new capacity for sustaining a high tempo of operations over several days, with all that that implies in terms of planning, secure communications and logistical preparation.
The pattern of events leading up to July 31, meanwhile, suggested ironically that the issue of command-and-control - invariably raised to call into question the control of Malaysia-based BRN political leaders over ground forces inside Thailand - is, if anything, more of a problem on the Thai side.
Political sources note clear differences in approach between, on the one hand, senior government officials close to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra responsible for advancing the peace process and eager for results; and, on the other, skeptical military officials concerned with the advantages the BRN would undoubtedly derive both in the field and at the negotiating table from a more or less successful reduction of hostilities.
As one well-connected Buddhist source in the region said: ''From my contact with military officers [during] Ramadan, I got the impression they were more worried by silence than by the sound of explosions.''
Ramadan was noteworthy not only for the sharp burst of violence in its final days but also for an equally unprecedented wave of propaganda activity. This hinged on the use of cloth banners carrying messages in both Romanized Malay and Thai excoriating the Thai state; demanding the withdrawal of Thai troops; and asserting ''ownership rights'' over the Pattani region. In the past, banners carrying separatist graffiti hung from roadside trees or bridges have mainly served as booby traps to lure security forces attempting to pull them down into the killing radius of an IED - a purely tactical adjunct to the military campaign.
The Ramadan campaign, however, was entirely different. While in a few cases dummy IEDs were left near banners, the primary objective was to communicate rather than kill. As with the wave of IEDs, the scope of the campaign was striking. The opener came on the eve of Ramadan, July 9, with banners denouncing ''Siamese colonialists'' as ''cruel'', ''destructive'' and ''deceitful'' hung overnight at a total of 162 locations across all four insurgency-affected provinces.
On July 22, banners were hung in 38 locations across eight of Narthiwat's 13 districts and 20 locations throughout Pattani. On July 26, similar anti-state banners were strung up at 39 locations across all eight districts of Yala. On August 8, the day of the Hari Raya or Eid holiday that marks the end of the month, banners were hung in four districts of Yala, four of Narathiwat, and two of Songkhla.
If the message was blunt, the propaganda campaign was apparently intended to work at several levels. Most obviously, it served to communicate the insurgents' basic objectives to large numbers of people in rural areas where the impact of social media is far less pronounced than in urban areas. At the same time, and at minimal cost in terms of resources, it also underscored to various audiences in and beyond the region the geographical reach and effectiveness of the separatist movement's organizational network.
That in turn appears to reflect the growing capacity of the movement's political wing, which operates in parallel with but separately from the more clandestine military structure. Arguably to a greater degree than the BRN's military wing, the political underground has expanded to co-opt civil society sympathizers as well as to infiltrate and influence a range of increasingly active non-governmental organizations.
The good news emerging from Ramadan was then that, according to some counts at least, ''violent incidents'' and casualties were down. The bad news was that the real story actually lies elsewhere.
Anthony Davis is a Bangkok-based security analyst for IHS-Jane's.
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