Suspected Muslim separatists attacked poorly defended road checkpoints killing at least 15 people, including five women, in the most deadly assault in several years in southernmost Thailand. More than 7,000 have died on all sides since the insurgency revived in January 2004.
Authorities fear a new generation of ethnic minority Malay Muslim guerrillas willing to use more efficient, deadly tactics has emerged and is at times acting independent of the insurgency’s traditional leadership.
This younger generation of more radical fighters is reputed to be frustrated by years of failed peace negotiations with military-appointed officials amid rampant allegations of abuses and extrajudicial killings by both sides.
It also comes after insurgents were accused of setting off a string of low-grade explosives in the capital of Bangkok to coincide with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Foreign Ministers’ meeting, where global top diplomats were in attendance.
“It is a cruel, barbarian and inhumane act of ‘deep south’ insurgents who hurled hand grenades and shot at civilians,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenat General Kongcheap Tantrawanit on November 6, according to BenarNews media.
“This is one of the biggest attacks in recent times,” Colonel Pramote Prom-in, a regional security spokesman, told Reuters.
The insurgents’ hit-and-run attack in the evening of November 5 used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to target ‘village defense volunteers’ at a checkpoint in southern Yala province.
The military’s weak spot, analysts say, was their dependence on volunteers to protect some roads, buildings and other possible targets in the three southern Muslim-majority provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, known collectively as the Deep South.
The volunteers are given a rifle and some basic training, to augment the military’s heavily armed forces who are positioned at priority sites or on patrols. Suspected insurgents stormed a pair of those volunteers’ security checkpoints on a narrow road in Yala’s Ban Tung Sadao village.
The killed volunteers included five females and a doctor according to their identification cards’ photographs which were later published. After the rebels opened fire, they stole M-16 assault rifles and shotguns from the volunteers before escaping into nearby forested hills.
To deter pursuers, they scattered bent nails on the road and burned tires. Security forces said they found bloodied clothing which could indicate some rebels were injured during the attack.
“While defense volunteers were minding check points at the outposts, unknown attackers rode motorcycles while some snuck in on foot to open fire at them using assault rifles and pistols,” a local police chief, Colonel Taweesak Thongsongsi, said. “They then retreated into a nearby rubber plantation. We believe they are insurgents.”
While no group claimed responsibility for the lethal attack, it is widely believed to have been orchestrated by Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the largest and best organized among several rebel groups.
Muslims represent about 80% of the south’s population, in contrast to Thailand’s overall 95% Buddhist population.
The southern zone borders Muslim-majority Malaysia. Thailand has asked Malaysia to help arrange peace talks in the past and clamp down on cross-border travel by rebels seeking sanctuary there.
Bangkok recently refused the insurgents’ latest demand: the release of all suspected rebel prisoners before peace talks could commence.
Thailand is a “major non-NATO ally” of the US which has spent decades training, arming and funding Thailand’s armed forces in conventional, urban, counterinsurgency, jungle, air and sea warfare. The designation allows allies access to more sophisticated weaponry than non-allies.
A US-Thai regional Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Center was established in Bangkok in early 2001, according to author Benjamin Zawacki, a former Amnesty International researcher who in 2008 interviewed Muslims allegedly tortured in the south.
But US support for Thai forces has created problems in the south, he claims.
In his book titled “Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S. and A Rising China,” Zawacki quoted then-US Ambassador to Thailand, Ralph “Skip” Boyce, telling Washington in 2005:
“Two conspiratorial themes” were “widespread and widely accepted” in Thailand, including ” the US military is inciting Muslims to violence, in order to justify establishing bases in the region [and] the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] is funding the insurgents in order to justifying an expanded US presence in the region for the Global War on Terror.”
Bangkok, meanwhile, has kept the south under martial law. Thai officials insist the insurgency is fueled by ethnic grievances and not religion, though Islamic schools and traditions are widespread in the restive region.
Analysts suggested heeding local Muslim demands to allow wider use of the region’s Yawi dialect alongside the mainstream Thai language, and allowances for southern schools to teach the region’s history, Islamic traditions and other related topics would ease tensions.
Thai officials have consistently rejected those demands, fearing any loosening of Bangkok’s grip would be a slippery slope towards independence, which officials maintain will never be allowed.
In 1909, Thailand — then known as Siam — annexed the southern zone which was an independent Malay Muslim sultanate. Modern day separatists hope to reestablish that sultanate either as an autonomous region or fully independent state.
During recent negotiations, Thai officials said they would be willing to discuss “decentralization” but the two sides reportedly failed to agree on details of devolving power from Bangkok.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.