Thailand’s Malay-Muslim Insurgency Gaining Ground

BANGKOK – Their identities may still be a mystery, but suspected Malay-Muslim militants in southern Thailand are removing any doubts about what they have in mind when they come calling. They want to prove that the Thai government is losing control of that troubled region, say analysts.

Tuesday night saw the latest of well-coordinated bombing and arson sprees that the assailants have mounted in the provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani, which lie along the Malaysian border. By Wednesday afternoon, the Thai media were reporting that close to 130 places had been attacked by small bombs and been set on fire. They included a railway station, karaoke bars, and homes of police and government officials.

These attacks follow a similar wave of bombs that exploded across the south in mid-June and were described, at the time, as an unprecedented assault in a conflict that erupted in that predominantly Malay-Muslim region in January 2004. Over a three-day period in June, some 70 small bombs were detonated at police stations, road checkpoints, and government offices.

"Terrorism is not about killing people; it is about creating insecurity," Zachary Abuza, an American academic specializing in terrorism in Southeast Asia, told IPS. "These attacks amplify their [the militants’] capacity to create fear and embarrass the government."

The targets chosen this week, in particular the homes of police and government officials, show that the militants "have good intelligence," he added. "The government does not seem to have a grip on the situation. The violence is getting more out of control."

Such a view is not what the government of predominantly Buddhist Thailand has been trying to project as it conjures up scenarios that it has the situation under control in the area that is home to the country’s largest minority, the Malay-Muslims.

In July, Bangkok spoke highly of a harsh emergency decree serving the state well to crackdown on suspected Malay-Muslim militants. Officials went on record saying that the one-year-old decree, which was extended last month, had enabled security forces and the police to make headway about understanding the insurgency, identifying the assailants, knowing their training structure, and having sufficient intelligence to know when they would strike.

To support that view, statistics were reeled out. Between July 2005 and July 2006, the police in the south had identified 1,264 Malay-Muslims suspected of being linked to the violence, of which 598 had been arrested, 664 were being sought for questioning, and two had been freed due to a clean record.

This comes after a revelation made in April by Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, Thailand’s army chief, that officials in the south had been maintaining "blacklists" of people in the area with possible ties to the violence. One Thai newspaper that saw the list said that in one list with 300 names, there were people who had "been arrested and killed, many under questionable circumstances." Three months after the emergency decree was enforced, giving security forced wide, unchecked powers, there were as many as 4,000 names on the blacklists compiled for Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala.

But attacks like the one this week, as also a similar one in June, are punching holes in the image of being in control that Bangkok has tried to sustain. "The government claims that things are under control and that the emergency decree has been working efficiently are in question," Surin Pitsuwan, a former Thai foreign minister and a member of the country’s Muslim minority, said in an interview.. "The message is that the militants are still around, that they can move across the region and that they have popular support. Otherwise, they cannot carry out such attacks."

Some Thai analysts, in fact, are pointing to a possible pattern emerging in the current cycle of violence, which has left over 1,300 people dead in the past two-and-a-half years and which has, as a predominant feature, still-to-be-identified assailants and their still-undeclared political goals. "There have been three types of attacks: the first are ones that the militants have initiated and the second are retaliatory strikes to certain acts of the government," Sunai Phasuk, Thai researcher for Human Rights Watch, the global rights lobby, told IPS. "The third are retaliatory attacks to undermine government’s claims about the headway it is making against the militants."

The violence since 2004 comes after a relative lull in a region that has seen conflicts during previous decades when militants from Malay-Muslim rebel groups launched separatist struggles against the more powerful Thai military. Muslims make up 80 percent of the population in the three southern provinces – once part of the defunct Muslim kingdom of Pattani that was annexed by Siam, as Thailand was known in 1902.

Malay-Muslim resentment to Bangkok’s policies range from political and cultural issues to economic ones – the Malay-Muslims complain of discrimination against their religion and language and economic marginalization. But attempts by civil society groups and academics to address these issues through an independent National Reconciliation Commission have not made headway. They have been pushed aside for a security solution that drives the government’s approach.

Currently, the three provinces are under the guard of 30,000 heavily armed troops, in addition to 10,000 police officers and some 1,000 psychological warfare operatives. In addition to manning checkpoints and surveying the hilly terrain in armored vehicles, they are also infiltrating Muslim villages to detect signs of militant activity.

"There are more mobile units on the ground. Some of the forces are sleeping in the villages," Panitan Wattanayagorn, a national security expert at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told IPS. "But there is a need for a new military strategy in the south."

A review of the prevailing security policies are needed, he conceded, because "they have not been able to come up with a good strategy to stop the daily incidents. It is worrying. The militants have not been deterred by the security forces."

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Author: Marwaan Macan-Markar

Marwaan Macan-Markar writes for Inter Press Service.