Savage Escalation Threatened in Thailand’s Southern Insurgency

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Thai soldiers inspect a military vehicle after a roadside bomb attack by suspected separatist militants in Thailand's restive southern province of Narathiwat on May 5, 2013

“Children and women will not be spared,” warned the leaflet. It wasn’t an idle threat. On May 1, Islamist insurgents from the Pejuang Kemerdekaan Fatoni — the Fatoni or Pattani Fighters — opened fire on villagers outside a grocery store in Thailand’s restive deep south. A 2-year-old boy was killed along with his father and four others. Gunmen reportedly fired point-blank into the head of each victim to make sure they were dead. Afterward, the leaflet and its blood-curdling message were circulated around mosques, markets and tea shops, leading to fears the decades-old conflict may have taken a new terrifying twist — from targeting combatants to the shocking murder of teachers and now the callous slaughter of the very young.

Just a stone’s throw from the idyllic white sand of Koh Lipe and its throngs of beetroot-red Western tourists, a civil conflict has waged for generations. Fighting in Thailand’s Muslim-majority southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat has claimed more than 4,000 lives since 2004. Home to around 2 million people, this region became part of Siam, the ancient name for central Thailand, in 1909 and remained relatively peaceful until the 1960s. Subsequently, a separatist movement blossomed, growing markedly more intense over the past decade, as locals chafed under what they saw as the economically unjust and corrupt rule of the Thai state. Security forces are now deeply entrenched in the area — more than 150,000 soldiers and paramilitaries battle an estimated 3,000 to 9,000 insurgents, known locally as juwae.

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Sadly, the killing of children is far from a new phenomenon. Between January 2004 and December 2007, at least 30 children were killed and 92 injured as the result of the unrest, according to the U.N. What is shocking about the latest attacks, say aid workers, is the explicit naming of children as legitimate targets, whereas previously they had been considered collateral damage. “Separatist insurgents showed monstrous brutality when they shot a toddler and others point-blank with assault rifles,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), in an article on the organization’s website. He called for rebel leaders to publicly condemn all attacks against civilians. Meanwhile, the boy’s widowed mother now intends to leave the area, telling local journalists, “I don’t want others in my family to be killed.”

Previously, teachers were in the crosshairs; 150 have been killed over the past decade, according to HRW. A swell in aggression around December led to the closure of roughly 1,300 local schools while their security was audited. Buddhist and Muslim teachers were killed indiscriminately. Both are considered part of the repressive state apparatus by the insurgents, who claim that atrocities by security forces justify the killings. (Despite many allegations, there has not been a single prosecution of military personnel for alleged abuses during the southern insurgency, not even for the infamous 2004 Tak Bai incident in which 78 young Muslim men died of suffocation while under arrest in a cramped military vehicle.)

The latest attempts to stem the bloodshed and negotiate a peace deal began on March 28, when representatives from the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the main umbrella organization representing the splintered mass of smaller groups like the Fatoni Fighters, met Thai government representatives in Malaysia. Yet the talks were accompanied by a spate of killings, including the slaying of a Thai marine and two top government officials. “The leaflet [threatening children] was clearly trying to shock people and so disrupt the peace negotiations,” says one analyst covering the conflict who asked to remain anonymous as he was not authorized to speak to the media. Peace talks have so far achieved very little, and March boasted one of the highest monthly death tolls of the past decade.

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There is very little evidence that any deal would filter down to combatants on the ground, since small and largely autonomous cells of juwae fighters are behind most offensives. Although such gunmen are characterized as Islamic separatists battling the Thai state, the real situation is much more complex. Experts say the conflict is not a purely religious struggle between Muslims and Buddhists, but based on a combination of faith and politics. The Pattani people, who are ethnically Malay, feel marginalized by Thais and point to economic inequality and discrimination. Thailand is a comparatively rich country in Southeast Asia and abject poverty is rare, yet opportunities in higher education or government jobs are sorely lacking for non-Buddhists.

While the region is 80% Malay Muslim, virtually all local bureaucrats are Buddhists drafted in from elsewhere. The state is also guilty of gravely offending local people through a raft of insensitive policies — one scheme to give Malay settlements Thai names resulted in an entirely Muslim village receiving the new moniker “Pig Bone Hill.” Despite attempts by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to inculcate jihadist zeal, this conflict remains framed as a quest for greater autonomy rather than a theocratic struggle. Young women in the region may wear the hijab, but they do so as a statement of ethnic identity rather than piety, teaming the headscarf with skinny jeans and fashionable tops. “The insurgents fight for their homeland, not for an Islamic state,” says Hadee Hamidong, an expert on the conflict at the Asia Foundation.

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

While a senior generation of exiled insurgent elders gives instructions on broad strategy, a growing generation gap has emerged with the headstrong young combatants on the ground. Analysts say this is not a campaign waged with a grand vision, but rather prosecuted as a struggle of attrition, with perceived injustices avenged on a tit-for-tat basis. On Dec. 11, four Malay Muslims were killed outside a tea shop in Narathiwat province, including an 11-month-old girl. A few hours later, two teachers were gunned down in front of students in a Pattani school canteen. No casualty in this war can be left unavenged, with the lack of a central command structure leading to atrocities of spiraling depravity. “Old guys say they are willing to come to the table and settle for something less than independence,” says Don Pathan, an independent security analyst based in Yala province. “But they don’t have unity. There’s no exit strategy without a manifesto.”

Professor Duncan McCargo, an expert on the southern Thailand insurgency based at Leeds University in the U.K., tells TIME that the younger and more aggressive elements in the militant movement are seeking to raise the political temperature out of disillusionment. “It’s really time Bangkok accepted that this is a political problem — it’s not about drugs, smuggling or ordinary crime,” he says. Observers believe a U.S.-style system of affirmative action could go a long way toward empowering local people, yet none has been attempted. “The ill-fated peace talks need to be followed up with a more realistic and low-key initiative based on plans to decentralize power to the region,” adds McCargo. Otherwise, that most simple of desires — for children to be safe — will likely remain a distant dream.

MORE: The Real Victims in Southern Thailand’s Insurgency