By Don Pathan
Special to The Nation
This past Tuesday, a group of separatist militants killed a retired schoolteacher in Songkhla, stole his pickup truck and used it for a car-bomb attack on a military target.
Investigating officers found him hanging from his neck in the bathroom of his home in Saba Yoi district.
Separately, just before the New Year, on December 28, a group of separatist militants entered a community hospital in Rangae district of Narathiwat to use it either as a launching pad to attack the Army unit next door or to take cover from return fire.
As expected, the incidents triggered another round of debate about civility and rules of engagement in a 15-year-old conflict that still has no end in sight.
Local Malay villagers sympathetic to the insurgents’ struggle (though not necessarily in agreement with their tactics) said the militants were merely dodging gunfire from a Thai Army unit that shares the same fence as the Rangae community hospital.
Thai officials, meanwhile, predictably seized on the incident for public relations gain. A small public protest was organised, and the separatist militants accused of using hospital staff and patients as a human shield.
Sending a message
One senior Thai Army officer in Narathiwat offered a different reading: the insurgents knowingly entered the hospital, but not to use its occupants as a shield.
“I think they wanted to make couple points,” said the officer, who spent much of the past decade in the far South. “First, they wanted to see what kind of reaction this would generate from the Thai side. And second, they wanted to highlight the fact that the community hospital and the Army unit share the same fence.”
The positioning of security units in and around civilian facilities such as schools, hospitals and places of worship has long been a sore point between locals and the military.
Local Thai Buddhists want the military around, but not so close that they risk getting caught up in the crossfire. Patani Malays, on the other hand, see the presence of the soldiers as intimidation, made worse by a culture of impunity within the ranks. For many, the presence of government troops is a constant reminder that the historical homeland of the local Malays is now occupied territory.
International norms prohibit military bases being located amid civilian communities, much less next to sensitive landmarks such as places of worship, schools and medical facilities.
In March 2016, Narathiwat’s Cho Ai Rong district was rocked when some 30 militants seized a hospital and used it as a base to attack the paramilitary outpost next door.
An unusually high number of militants were mobilised resulting in an especially lengthy battle which saw bullets flying back and forth for about 30 minutes. Nobody was killed, since this was not the aim of the attack.
The idea, it seems, was to put on a “performance” via the scores of security cameras placed in and around the medical facility. Insurgency is largely a communicative action, and in Cho Ai Rong the message of the militants’ capability was loud and clear.
The militants thought that by first making efforts to place hospital and staff out of harm’s way, they could legitimately use the hospital to launch the attack. But the loudest condemnation came afterwards from the local Muslim villagers, who accused the insurgents of recklessly placing them in the line of fire.
Thai authorities often exploit attacks such as this for publicity. But at the same time, they know well that such incidents can place an unwanted spotlight on their conduct in this historically contested region. It’s natural for locals to question why a military unit, however small, has to be situated right by a community hospital.
‘Bandits, not guerrillas’
In an effort to deny the separatist Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) movement the recognition and legitimacy that it craves, Thai authorities continue to classify the southern violence as “disturbances” rather than armed conflict. In the view of many Thai policymakers, these Patani Malay insurgents are nothing but a bunch of criminals.
But BRN cadres insist they are more than just “jone” (bandits) – the term that Thai authorities like to apply to the outfit that controls virtually all the combatants in the Malay-speaking South.
The militants operate with loose guidance but no strict code of conduct for their attacks.
Decisions on what to target and how to carry out attacks are made at the cell level by operatives who don’t always think about rules of engagement, international norms or humanitarian principles.
Recent attacks are part of an ongoing spike in violence including a bombing spree from December 26-29 that began with the destruction of an iconic mermaid sculpture on a Songkhla beach. The spike is in response to efforts by Thailand, and talks facilitator Malaysia, to pressure BRN leaders to come to the table and meet General Udomchai Thamsarorat, the newly appointed chief negotiator for Bangkok’s peace initiative for the far South.
BRN not ready to talk
BRN sources said their leaders are not yet ready to talk, and have other priorities – like enhancing the understanding of international norms across their whole organisation.
Udomchai was supposed to meet BRN leaders Abdulloh Waemanor and Deng Awaeji on November 24 in Malaysia. But the two refused to show up and went into hiding.
One Thai Army source said the two leaders had decided on December 5 to step down from the BRN ruling council “in order to save the movement”.
“If they do come to the table and meet Udomchai, it will be in a personal capacity,” said the Army officer.
But another Army officer, from a military intelligence unit, said rumours the pair had resigned were a ploy generated by the BRN to get the Thais off its back.
Artef Sohko, an activist from The Patani, a political action group promoting rights to self-determination for the locals in this predominantly Malay-speaking region, said:
“The idea of a BRN figure stepping down or leaving the organisation to save the movement is not far-fetched. It has been done before.”
Unlike other Patani Malay movements, the BRN is not ruled by any one particular person but by a secretive council of elders who have strong religious credentials. In short, the BRN decision-making process is not led by one person; decisions are made collectively.
As such, Abdulloh and Deng could be easily cast aside by the BRN should they change their minds, for whatever reason, and come to the negotiating table.
That fate befell Sukri Hari, a well-known and respected figure in the far South who surfaced in August 2014 to join negotiations on the side of MARA Patani. The separatist umbrella group still has very little control over militants in the far South, but it remains the only group with whom Bangkok is negotiating.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based development and security consultant and a founding member of Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com), a civil society organisation dedicated to critical discussion of the conflict in Thailand’s far South.