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Muslim insurgency in Thailand's restive south heats up

The Muslim separatist attacks that have racked southern Thailand since 2004 grind on amid a cooling of autonomy talk in Bangkok.

By Newley PurnellContributor / August 31, 2011

Thai security forces investigate the site of a bomb attack near a bomb disposal robot, in the southern Yala province on Aug. 8.

Surapan Boonthanom/Reuters

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Pattani, Thailand

Here in southern Thailand, the Muslim insurgents seem to be committing more gruesome acts of violence, putting a spotlight on one of Asia’s most opaque conflicts.

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Separatists have been mounting attacks in this jungle-covered region, near the Malaysian border, since 2004, killing more than 4,700 people. During the past six months, attacks have been “better planned and targeted, more sophisticated, and professional than earlier in the conflict,” says Anthony Davis, a Thailand-based analyst at global security consulting firm IHS-Jane's.

But now insurgents are increasingly using IEDs, and have stepped up the type of violence. Buddhist monks are beheaded. Schools, the symbols of the Buddhist Thai state, are burned down. Drive-by shootings leave teachers and rubber tappers dead. Car bombs kill soldiers and bystanders. Davis notes that all of 2010 saw three car bomb attacks in the deep south, but since January there have been six such attacks.

“The fact is there is a war going on and it appears to be getting increasingly vicious and intense,” says Davis.

The violence is believed to be perpetrated by a small group of hard-core insurgent operatives, some of whom claim to be battling for greater autonomy from the Thai state. But these shadowy groups rarely claim responsibility for their attacks, and the movement seems to lack a coherent political front –or even, perhaps, a common goal. Many local Muslims, in fact, say they do not support the groups’ supposed separatist aims.

Most security experts agree that the groups are largely focused on driving out authorities from Bangkok, which annexed the area in 1902. Thai officials say Al Qaeda has inspired, but not assisted, militants in the south.

Marc Askew, a senior fellow in the anthropology program at the University of Melbourne who is based in Southern Thailand, says that meanwhile, though the exact numbers are difficult to nail down, statistics seem to show that the number of monthly violent events has actually declined as of late.

“But the difference,” he says, “is that casualties seem to be greater per event.” The conflict may not have brought a lot of international attention overall, but attacks are getting more deadly, signaling that the insurgents are getting better at targeting "gaps in the security net," such as teachers who cannot be protected by troops 24/7. Despite the Thai military in the area the insurgents are not losing ground.

An autonomy proposal

In an effort to attract votes by addressing the violence, Yingluck Shinawatra visited the deep south ahead of her July 3 election as prime minister. Donning a red hijab, Ms. Shinawatra, who is Buddhist, proposed granting the region more autonomy.

She suggested that the three southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, and Naratiwat be grouped into one “special administrative zone," with one elected governor. The proposal was supported by academics and nonprofit groups in the deep south that favor decentralization and more economic independence from Bangkok.

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