Insurgents in Thailand’s deep South ‘ruled by heart, not head’

The Nation, November 23, 2014

Don Pathan, Special to The Nation, Yala

Fresh wave of attacks: insurgency leaders worried emotion has got the better of their fighters

A hand-written note left at the crime scene where school teacher Issara Chairitchok was shot dead reflects the growing fear among the local population in Thailand’s southernmost provinces – that more bad things are coming.

If you “detain indiscriminately”, we will “kill indiscriminately”, the note read.

Issara became the 179th teacher killed since the current wave of insurgency flared a decade ago. More than 6,000 people, mostly Muslims of Malay ethnicity, have been killed since then.

Issara was shot dead in Pattani’s Khok Pho district on November 15, presumably by insurgents who were ticked off over a number of incidents that resulted in the death and wounding of ordinary Malay Muslim villagers, including women and children, at the hands of state security officials.

Beside the shooting death of Issara, November 15 also witnessed a mother and her daughter gunned down at close range on the Than To-Betong road, and a roadside bomb attack that injured two rangers in Narathiwat’s Rusoh district.

Publicly, authorities said the shooting death of Issara was a retaliation for the November 14 killing of two suspected insurgents in a gunfight in Pattani’s Nong Chik district.

But an exiled separatist source dismissed the claim. He said although the two insurgents were outnumbered and outgunned, the movement could accept the outcome as they deemed the fight a fair one.

Unlike other sub-national conflicts elsewhere, the insurgency in Thailand’s deep South does not have an officially designated clearing house or a coherent dialogue process where both sides can confirm or deny their activities.

And without a guarantee of immunity or a recognisable political wing to state their case, there is no reason any of the separatist groups would admit publicly or privately to any of the attacks. Leaflets and banners to remind the authorities of the retaliation is good enough for now.

Besides notes left at the scene of attacks, officials often turn to exiled separatist leaders to help clear things up.

As for the current “spikes”, one has to go back to the October 12 arson attacks on five public schools in Pattani’s Thung Yang Daeng and one in Ma-Yor district. Police said the arson attacks were a retaliation to the arrest of top insurgent leaders.

But a separatist source said the attacks were in response to officials mistreating eight suspects that had been rounded up in Thung Yang Daeng following a vicious attack on the police outpost in the district in mid-July.

Separatist sources said insurgents operate on a need-to-know basis and the militants behind the July attack are long gone. There was no way the eight detainees would have any prior knowledge of the attack.

Another example of officials “overstepping the line” was the shooting death of a 10-year-old Muslim girl in Narathiwat’s Bacho district after the vehicle she was travelling in did not stop when a Marine on the side of the road flashed a flashlight at them.

Her mother, father and older sister survived gunshot wounds. A senior Marines commander in the area expressed regret and provided the family with Bt500,000.

Insurgents hit back a week later on November 1 by attacking a group of Buddhist men drinking in front of a shophouse in Songkhla’s Thepha district, killing three and wounding four.

The killers left a sarcastic note that read: “Sorry for the unintentional killings. Just like when you shot at the Malay people in [Hutae] Yalor village [in Bacho].”

The following day, gunmen shot at close range a 20-year-old Buddhist university student in Narathiwat’s Tambon. The assassin’s gun jammed as he tried to shoot the victim’s two friends who were riding pillion on the same motorbike. Police said the victim’s father was killed in similar fashion two years ago.

The same day also saw a gangland style attack by men travelling on a pick-up truck who opened fire at a house Tambon Nanak in Tak Bai district. One person died on the spot and three others were wounded. All were Buddhists.

The following day in Pattani’s Tambon Taluboh, gunmen in a pickup truck attacked a truck full of local Malay Muslim residents, killing three, all of whom were officials from Tambon Krong Maning in Pattani. Two others suffered bullet wounds.

On November 8, a Sungai Padi Muslim resident was shot dead while four rangers and a civilian were wounded by two separate roadside bombings in Pattani on November 11. An imam was shot dead by hooded men in Yala’s Betong district on November 12 and then there was the aforementioned gunfight in Pattani’s Nong Chik on November 14 that resulted in the deaths of the two insurgents who refused to surrender.

The third week of November saw several banners erected in various locations that read: “As long as the policy of ‘Returning Happiness to the People’ is still about aiming gun barrels at religious leaders, communities, Muslim clerics, and innocent Malay brothers and sisters, Buddhist civilians, bureaucrats, and teachers can be certain that they will be the last dead bodies.”

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the recent wave of attacks were the simultaneous attacks on four karaoke bars in remote areas on the outskirts of the Pattani provincial capital on October 31. According to a separatist source, the idea was to teach these establishments, as well as the Muslim clients, a nasty lesson.

There was a suggestion that the insurgents had considered waiting until a Muslim walked into one of these establishment before setting off the explosive. But that would of meant compromising their own security and possibly giving their location away. In the end it was decided that it was best to set off the blasts simultaneously and leave the scene immediately.

However, the attacks against the karaoke bars are not the start of a moral crusade. If anything, it was meant to discredit the state and send a stern warning of their disapproval of Muslims indulging in these outlets.

Among the intelligence and security community, all sorts of explanations were given to explain what appears to be a spike in violence recently. But sources in the separatist movements said making the area ungovernable as much as possible continued to be the aim for the time being.

The recent attacks on soft targets, they said, were part of retaliation against specific actions of security officials.

The fact that these attacks are driven by emotion rather than being part of a strategic calculation has become a point of concern the insurgency leaders.

But this is the nature of the insurgency in Thailand’s Malay-speaking South, where the separatist movement’s chain of command is very fluid and the command and control is untested. In real terms, this means insurgents on the ground continue to decide who they target, while at the same time keeping in mind the need for self-restraint and staying within the loose guidelines provided by the leaders in exile.

Attacking “soft” targets may humiliate security agencies, but separatist leaders have acknowledged that such tactics play into the hands of the authorities.

Moreover, the fact that the authorities make no serious effort to look into the conduct of their security personnel suggests that they can still tolerate the humiliation of being on the receiving end.

Don Pathan is a member of the Patani Forum

(www.pataniforum.com) and a freelance development and security consultant based in Yala.