In mid-2005, less than two years after the current insurgency exploded in the Muslim-majority three southernmost provinces, Thai security officials began to reconnect with exiled separatist leaders. They were hoping that these ageing leaders from various
One issue the exiled leaders always put on the table whenever they meet the Thai side is the target killings of religious leaders by pro-government death squads. Naturally, the government side points to the collateral damage, as well as target killings of innocent people.
Insurgents insist that spies are fair game. Nevertheless, there have been incidents in which innocent civilians were targeted as part of the tit-for-tat between the two sides. An eye for an eye, so they say.
The problem for observers is that, unlike conflicts in other parts of the world, the insurgents in Thailand’s deep South do not surface to make claims. This is also very different from the previous generation of Patani Malay separatists, who began to dwindle in the late 1980s.
Today, the theatre of violence is not just in remote areas but in towns and cities, and no one really knows who’s behind the attacks, such as Tuesday’s drive-by shooting on a teashop in Narathiwat’s Rangae district that killed four and injured four.
For the past nine years, one thing has been clear: the juwae, as part of their coordinated campaign, have continuously turned up the heat, inflicting greater psychological damage with their attacks.
Remember how irritated the authorities were at the very first car bomb near a hotel in Sungai Kolok in October 2009? Today, bombs are hidden on motorbikes, in pickup trucks, cars and under the tarmac, waiting for security personnel to pass by.
Often, these attacks are not as discreet. An attack in Pattani’s Mayo district last July, when insurgents in three pickup trucks drove up to soldiers on two motorbikes and began firing at close range, was carried out in front of security cameras. It jolted the entire nation and forced the government into a knee-jerk reaction.
While some attacks are easier to predict, such as an ambush of police or soldiers followed by a brief gunfight, roadside car bombs are not.
As in other sub-national conflicts, security officials are pretty much sitting ducks. But insurgents’ choices of targets and tactics, on the other hand, change often. In 2007, more than 100 schools came under arson attack. The following year, less than ten.
According to the website of the Regional Education Office No 12 (www.coad3.org/web/), an entity of the Education Ministry that oversees the southernmost provinces, nine teachers were killed in 2004. But from 2005-2007, 65 teachers were killed. The figure dropped by half from 2008-2011, with an average of ten teachers killed each year. And this year, only two teachers had been killed as of October 3.
All that changed on November 14 when gunmen, believed to be part of a pro-government death squad, killed an imam in Yala’s Yaha district. Abdullateh Todir, 49, was a member of the Islamic Committee of Yala, as well as chairman of the Imam Association of Yaha. He is a resident of Tambon Patae, an extremely volatile area in this highly contested region of Thailand.
An exiled leader in the BRN-Coordinate accused the government side of killing the imam. The cleric’s relatives and friends agreed. There was an attempt on Abdullateh’s life about a year ago but a bullet missed him and took his daughter’s life instead. Days later, a team of three Special Forces soldiers were providing security for the imam. The team leader, a lieutenant wearing a sarong and traditional Malay shirt, and accompanied by two armed soldiers in fatigues, rode pillion with Abdullateh up and down the Yaha-Bannang Sata backroads. “We’re friends,” said the smiling lieutenant, pointing to the imam, as he looked at this correspondent, who visited the cleric the day after the failed attempt on his life.
Abdullateh’s neighbourhood, Tambon Patae, is one of the reddest areas classified by authorities as a “red zone.” Thai official sources said the Special Forces and civilians may have wanted Abdullateh alive because they saw him as a potential go-between for the authorities wanting to set up a line of communication with the insurgents. But others may have found him guilty by association, said the BRN source.
The killing of Abdullateh set off a wave of retaliation including a motorbike bombing of a Paramilitary Ranger unit in downtown Yala, the bombing of a train bogey carrying security personnel in Narathiwat, arson attacks on a school in Pattani, and attacks against three teachers, two of whom were killed.
As part of the damage control, Thawee Sodsong, head of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC), ordered an investigation into the killing of Abullateh.
But that hasn’t changed much on the ground. On Tuesday in Narathiwat’s Rangae district, a three-man death squad dressed in black jumped out of a pickup truck and fired on a teashop full of local Malay-Muslim villagers. Four, including an 11-month-old baby, were killed and another four were wounded.
Later in the day, in Tambon Panan in Pattani’s Mayo district, five gunmen charged into a schoolyard and shot to death the director and a teacher. As in all other incidents, police said the attackers were insurgents.
Frustrations run high, indeed, especially among agencies that are against the use of death squads to even the score. Many believe target killings have created a reverse effect, such as encouraging people to take up arms to avenge the death of their imam or friends or relatives.
Others, like the SBPAC, believe in establishing dialogue with the separatists. The problem is that their dealings with the old guard have not delivered the desired outcome.
“The government fails to end vigilantism allegedly carried out by rogue security units in revenge for insurgent attacks on Buddhist Thai officials and civilians,” said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Insurgents may claim that abuses by the security forces justify their attacks, but the government should not allow its troops to adopt the same logic. Any attempt to cover up the misconduct of security forces will further escalate a cycle of reprisal violence. And clearly, this is not an environment to build communal trust, necessary for a peace dialogue,” Sunai said.
Judging from the violence that has been unleashed over the past four weeks, it may be a long time before the situation returns to normal, whatever normal means.