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.

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

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.

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.

But her party failed to take any seats in the region, and last week, when pressed before parliament to provide details on the plan, Yingluck's deputy prime minister appeared to distance himself and the administration from the proposal. This has led to speculation that the plan could ultimately be abandoned.

“It’s not a good start in terms of building trust between the new government and people in the South,” says Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. He notes that while some in the south may yearn for more control of the region, residents will now see the proposal as a political ploy.

Still, is some form autonomy an option in the months or years ahead? “The end game will almost inevitably involve a degree of power devolution,” says Davis. “The question is what form and how long that will take.”

However, “there are obviously powerful institutions, notably the Interior Ministry and the Royal Thai Army, that at this stage do not see the granting of anything approaching self-government as a good thing.”

Others say heavy-handed security forces are to blame for inciting the ongoing violence by mistreating locals and suspects. A solution is “very straightforward,” Mr. Sunai says. The government must “end the abuses by state officials and hold them to account."

Government involvement in the south

Addressing journalists in Pattani one evening last week, Udomchai Thammasarorat, the Thai Army commander in charge of the restive provinces, denied that the violence is becoming more bloody.

He said that the Army is sticking to its plan of trying to promote “understanding” between the government and locals, and argued that economic development will help win hearts and minds.

He pointed to government outreach programs such as one in which medics at an Army base provide local Muslims with free medical services. But on a recent visit there were no speakers of Pattani Malay, the local language, on hand, so locals who don’t speak Thai must bring a relative who can when seeking treatment.

The government is also working to help eliminate “injustices” perpetrated against innocent people, according to the Director of the Justice Ministry's Central Institute of Forensic Science Pornthip Rojanasunand. She noted the use of new forensic DNA techniques.

But one of the tools she touted was the scandal-plagued GT200 bomb detector, which was revealed in early 2010 to be bogus. The Thai government's own tests revealed that the devices work only 20 percent of the time.

Among the detainees at the army base was a 30-something Muslim man who gave his name as Amatsydee. Sitting on a bed in his cell, he patiently explained, in passable Thai, that he had been detained because the authorities accuse him of assisting a “group of bad people.”

Asked about the reason for insurgent attacks in the region, “I don’t know how to say it,” he said, looking up at a burly guard standing beside him. “My Thai isn’t very good.”

With the autonomy proposal now in question, it appears unlikely that any new political policies will be undertaken or that the Army will alter its tactics.

The danger of not changing the strategy in the south, says Davis, is that there is a sense of complacency in Bangkok, the conviction that things are getting better in the deep south.

“But it’s a real mess down there,” Davis says, “and arguably it’s getting worse.”

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