The slaughter of 15 defense volunteers by separatist rebels last week in southernmost Thailand marked one of the deadliest assaults suffered by the government in a decade and a half of insurgency.
But the debacle in the predominantly Malay-Muslim border province of Yala also underscored a pernicious paradox that is now central to the conflict: periodic dramas that seize national attention for a few days merely highlight how the two sides are locked into a level of blood-letting that is actually remarkably low and likely can be inflicted and suffered indefinitely.
Indeed, occasional high-profile attacks serve to mask a new reality in the border provinces: the slow but unmistakable fading of an insurgency in which violence has dropped to record lows as a sclerotic rebel leadership struggles to retain political relevance and negotiating leverage in a shifting landscape.
The late evening attack on November 5 saw between 10 and 15 separatist gunmen storm a checkpoint manned by village defense volunteers in Lam Phraya sub-district on the edge of Yala city.
The use of assault rifles against a group of ill-trained villagers armed with pistols, a couple of shotguns and only one automatic rifle turned an attack into a massacre. In addition to the 15 killed, another five were wounded adding to a toll that has seen well over 7,000 dead since the insurgency erupted in 2004.
Clearly conducted on the basis of careful reconnaissance, the attackers were supported by teams that scattered metal spikes and planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along roads to cover the retreat of the main group which, if blood trails were any indication, may have suffered one or two wounded themselves.
The assault was certainly the bloodiest but not the only shock the ethnic Malay rebels have inflicted on Thai security forces in recent weeks.
Amid a late October uptick in violence, rebels staged a car-bomb attack outside a block of police apartments in Pattani province. Occurring at 10:30 pm, the huge blast was evidently not intended to cause mass casualties – in fact there were none — but it did serve as a potent reminder that the rebels can still pack a punch.
On August 2, a far more complex separatist operation in Bangkok saw a coordinated wave of IEDs and incendiary bomb attacks spread across the metropolis. The largest and most ambitious attack ever undertaken by the Malay separatists in the Thai capital was again intended to avoid serious casualties – only four people were wounded in the small blasts.
Strategically timed to coincide with an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit attended by global foreign ministers, the bombings were clearly aimed at embarrassing the government of coup leader-turned-politician General Prayut Chan-ocha – and succeeded in spades.
The ratcheting up of violence has predictably prompted speculation over the drivers behind it. At one level, there seems little doubt the rebels, grouped under the leadership of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), have been hitting back against military abuses that continue to roil Malay-Muslim sentiment across the south.
A recent editorial in the local Bangkok Post newspaper asserted bluntly that security officials had “got away scot-free from suspected involvement in torture, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings of insurgent suspects.”
While the two incidents may not have been directly linked, the Bangkok bombing spree unfolded just a week after an insurgent suspect, Abdullah Isa-Musa, was apparently beaten comatose during interrogation in a military base. Following his death in hospital in late August, a funeral in his home province of Pattani attracted thousands from across the region.
According to sources close to BRN, anger over Malaysian pressure on rebel leaders south of the border to sign up to a peace process cobbled by the Malaysian government has also been growing over the past year and has been cited by some analysts as a possible driver of recent attacks.
On-again, off-again talks in Malaysia between a Thai government team and leaders from militarily-inactive separatist factions have to date been dismissed by BRN’s secretive leadership.
Above and beyond these factors, however, another overarching impetus behind high-profile operations has been far less examined: BRN’s need to periodically assert its relevance in a world that threatens to pass it by.
Recent attacks have come against a backdrop of a decline in violence that has been evident since at least 2014, but which in 2019 has reached what Thai military planners are likely hoping is close to a tipping point from which the insurgents may not be able to pull back.
For most months this year the number of days that passed without any violence in the three conflict-affected provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat and four adjacent districts of Songkhla has been in double digits.
Fifteen days in September and 17 days in October were incident-free in a conflict where violence now typically means a single targeted killing of a civilian or off-duty security officer and almost never a large-scale attack on the scale of November 5.
Indeed, October marked the first month since 2004 in which an entire week — between October 15 and 21 — passed without a single violent incident reported across the entire region.
IED incidents that between 2011 and 2016 were running at an average of over 20 per month dropped in 2017 and 2018 to 10 per month. This year they have further declined to around six, including incidents in which devices were disarmed or failed to detonate.
All of that has been reflected in a monthly casualty toll that between January and October this year averaged around 14 fatalities and 19 wounded in all types of violence, which in the south includes a significant proportion of drug-related criminal and personal disputes.
In the first years of the current decade the monthly toll was around 50 fatalities each month with another 80-100 wounded.
The drop in attacks and casualties in turn points to a hemorrhaging of committed and experienced manpower in rebel ranks. To some extent, losses have stemmed from the cumulative impact of years of counter-insurgency operations based on gradually improving human and technical intelligence that have led to more regular raids and arrests.
Arguably as important, though, has been the striking failure of BRN’s aging leadership to keep pace with – let alone drive –changes in the region and the wider world.
At once obsessively secretive and congenitally inward-looking, the group’s leadership council has no media outreach worth the name in a media-centric age. It has also failed to develop any political or negotiating strategy to capitalize on a proven capacity for violence and widespread unhappiness among Malay-Muslims with the Buddhist-majority Thai state.
Anecdotal evidence backed by hard statistics suggests that many operatives have simply drifted away from what has always been an overwhelmingly part-time insurgency. BRN’s appeal today arguably offers new-comers little beyond vague promises of freedom, or “merdeka”, in some distant future and, more immediately, opportunities for violent revenge.
At the local level, the shrinking of committed rebel manpower has apparently impacted clandestine village-based units once known as RKK (from Runda Kumpulan Kecil, or small patrol groups) that were tasked with targeted killings of local Malay “collaborators” and Buddhists, along with small-scale IED attacks.
At the district and provincial level, there has been a far clearer drop in the number of militarily proficient insurgent “A Teams.” At the height of the conflict between 2009 and 2013, the tip of the rebel spear — once know by grandiose monikers such as “commandos” or “harimau Melayu” (Malay Tigers) – consisted of trained fighters capable of conducting complex ambushes against military patrols, sophisticated car-bomb attacks and even assaults on military bases.
A disastrous attempt to storm a Marine Corps base in Narathiwat in October 2013 dealt a body-blow to BRN’s hopes of building up such semi-regular forces. Warned of the impending night-time attack, troops killed at least 16 insurgents in the bloodiest military clash of the conflict to date.
Since then assaults on military bases have ceased and, as trained manpower has shrunk and capabilities atrophied, well-planned and effective ambushes – as distinct from occasional roadside IED blasts — have become increasingly rare.
If the Thai military has grounds to hope that steadily declining violence may render substantive bilateral negotiations irrelevant, BRN has a correspondingly powerful incentive to remind its enemies that it retains a military capability — even as it fails to direct that capability towards clear political goals.
Ironically, those reminders have become easier as the military increases its efforts to outsource southern security to vulnerable local para-military forces. As most regular army battalions have withdrawn from a declining conflict, offensive security operations have typically been taken over by police special operations units and, more importantly, para-military Rangers.
Logistically far cheaper to maintain in the field than regular battalions, Ranger regiments are made up of lightly-armed volunteer units, trained, equipped and officered by the military and generally well-paid.
Second-line missions such as routine patrols and civilian protection duties once entrusted to Rangers have today been turned over to Territorial Defense Volunteers (TDVs).
Full-time volunteers equipped with automatic weapons, TDVs are trained and paid by the Interior Ministry to operate in support of district-level civil administrations. They are also typically local Muslims with the intelligence bonus of eyes and ears at village level, but also real vulnerabilities when off-duty.
And at the bottom of the stack but increasingly pushed forward to ensure sub-district and village security are Village Defense Volunteers, of the type massacred on November 5. They consist of local villagers with minimal training and only basic weaponry, stiffened, if lucky, by better-armed TDVs.
Beyond a few weeks of heightened vigilance and perhaps improved training for villagers, the Yala blood-letting is unlikely to see any substantial change in the military’s overall approach to outsourcing security.
At root there is little to indicate that today’s insurgents can mount more than occasional, one-off high-profile attacks; or that their leaders grasp that whatever negotiating leverage they may still retain hinges on more effectively marrying their residual military capabilities with political objectives.
Fueled by a century of southern Malay disaffection and a stubborn culture of state impunity that Thailand’s leaders refuse to address, real peace in southern Thailand is undoubtedly still years away. In the meantime, the trickle of tit-for-tat killings and low-grade explosions will reflect habitual reflex more than popular revolt.