In Southern Thailand, 16 Dead and No Peace in Sight

Why the military is unlikely to resolve southern Thailand's long-running insurgency

  • Share
  • Read Later
Surapan Boonthamon / REUTERS

Security personnel investigate around bodies of insurgents at the site of an attack on an army base in the troubled southern province of Narathiwat February 13, 2013. Thai soldiers killed at least 17 Muslim insurgents who attacked a military base in a pre-dawn raid..

They chanted, “God is great,” as they buried Maroso Chantrawadee in the village of Yuelor in the violence-plagued deep south of Thailand on Thursday. Dozens of Muslim men in white skullcaps carried his body, wrapped in white cloth, to its grave. Until this week, Maroso had been a survivor. He emerged alive from the back of an army truck after the 2004 Tak Bai incident, in which Thai soldiers stacked hundreds of young Muslim men they had arrested on top of each other as they drove them to an army camp for interrogation; 78 died of suffocation on the way. He rose to become a leader of a band of armed militants, called juwae, fighting for independence for the five Muslim-majority provinces from the rest of predominantly Buddhist Thailand.

But on Wednesday, Maroso and 15 of his fellow rebels were killed in a failed attempt to overrun a Thai army base. In a video of the funeral uploaded on Facebook, with narration scripted to recruit more rebels, Maroso was hailed as a martyr. He and his guerrillas were called heroes for having killed many Thai soldiers over the years. However, it didn’t mention the many innocent civilians, both Buddhist and Muslim, killed in the long-simmering conflict.

(PHOTOS: Border Realms: A Ghostly Ruin in Thailand’s South)

The firefight in which Maroso died was a rare victory for Thailand’s security forces. In nine years of battling a renewed militant separatist movement in the deep south, soldiers have suffered hundreds of casualties and frequent humiliations in ambushes by rebels. The suffering among civilians has been even greater. In all, 5,377 have been killed and 9,513 wounded in shootings, bombings, beheadings and arson attacks, according to Srisompob Jitpiromsri, an academic in southern Pattani province who runs a website called Deep South Watch.

On Wednesday the army was prepared: they killed at least 16 of about 50 rebels and wounded an unknown number of others. The soldiers escaped unscathed. As of Friday, they were sweeping the area and had arrested four suspected attackers. The difference this time, army officials said in explaining the outcome, was that locals had tipped them off. Srisompob believes the killing of the teacher, one of many attacks on the education system in the south, played a role in that. “We are seeing a change in attitude and sympathies among some in the Muslim community. They have had enough of the violence and the killing of innocents,” he told TIME.

If the militants are indeed losing some support among Muslims, could that mean the tide is finally starting to turn in the deep south? Most observers don’t think so. The violence in southern Thailand is running too long and too complex to be solved in one firefight — or by military means. “The conflict in the south is fundamentally political,’’ says Matthew Wheeler, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

(MORE: No Peace: Why Conflict Persists in Thailand’s Deep South)

Once known as the Sultanate of Pattani, the area was annexed by Thailand, then known as Siam, in 1909. Divided into the five provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Satun, Songkhla and Yala, resistance to Buddhist-centric rule from Bangkok went on for decades, only waning in the 1990s. As the century turned, however, the convergence of several factors served to reignite the conflict. Younger Muslims in the south were being educated in conservative, Saudi Arabian–funded schools. A handful of Thai Muslims who had fought in Afghanistan or trained in Pakistan began returning to the region and training others in armed jihad. The Prime Minister in the early 2000s, Thaksin Shinawatra, disbanded intelligence networks set up by his predecessor, ordered security forces to take a harder line against the few remaining militants and then launched a “war on drugs” in which many young Muslim men were among the thousands of victims of extrajudicial killings. Radicalism in the sleepy south was reawakened.

On April 28, 2004, Thais were shocked at the scenes of over a hundred young militants attacking 10 police outposts in three provinces. Armed mostly with sticks, knives and mystical beliefs they could survive live fire, many were cut down. An army commander enraged the Muslim community by shelling the region’s holiest mosque where a few dozen militants had taken refuge, then executed them. The south, where the embers of rebellion had appeared to be dying out, erupted in flames.

(MORE: In Thailand, Evidence Suggests Bombings Tied to Larger Plot)

Successive Thai governments have tried several approaches to ending the violence, but for the most part they have relied heavily on the use of force. More than 150,000 soldiers and paramilitaries have flooded the region to protect it from an estimated 3,000 to 9,000 juwae fighters. They have had little success. The militants have become more sophisticated and better armed over the years, frequently ambushing Thai soldiers and waging a campaign of terror against civilians, hoping to drive Buddhists out of the provinces. The young men who stormed police stations in 2004 wore flip-flops and had few weapons. The juwae who stormed the army base earlier this week wore military uniforms, had bulletproof vests and carried assault weapons and grenades.

Even if security forces capture all those who took part in Wednesday’s battle, thousands of others are planning new attacks. “You can kill all the insurgents, but if you don’t change your nation-state construct, you will never resolve this,’’ Don Pathan, a Yala-based independent analyst told TIME. Thailand’s national power structure is highly centralized. Bangkok imposes policies for governors and security officials who are mostly Buddhist to rule over the Muslim majority. Local language, history, culture and identity are disrespected.

While there has been some recognition of that, those who govern Thailand are still at odds over what approach to take. The result has been inconsistent, half-hearted and ultimately ineffective policies. Conversely, the militants are highly decentralized, which presents a different set of problems. Traditional separatist groups that have been around for decades and are willing to negotiate with the government have almost no control over the younger more militant juwae, who have shown little willingness to engage in talks. While the people of the south may be tired of violence, civil-society peace movements don’t yet have the strength to make a difference. “They are not enough at this point,’’ Srisompob said. Wednesday’s win by the army aside, that sad admission and the other factors already listed suggest that, for a long time to come, southern Thailand will be a land of blood and fear.

MORE: Lost in Thailand: How a Lowbrow, Low-Budget Film Became China’s Biggest Hit