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Insurgents make it clear there is no neutral ground

It was dubbed "Rick's Cafe" by one foreign diplomat, in reference to the hangout in the movie Casablanca, neutral turf where all World War II warring factions cautiously mingled, trying to figure out their opponent's next move.

Published on March 18, 2008

But whatever "neutrality" the CS Pattani Hotel had in the past ended on Saturday evening, as the violence in this restive region took its toll on the hotel, one of the most important commercial establishments in the deep South.

For much of the past five years, this hotel was the venue for some of the fiercest debates among top government officials, local elites, Muslim clerics, human-rights activists and local politicians.

They all came to sip tea and chat with acquaintances at the terrace restaurant next to the very spot where a car armed with three fire-extinguisher canisters, each filled with 10 kilograms of explosive materials, was parked.

Given the high-profile nature of CS Pattani, not to mention the unprecedented nature of the car-bomb attack, it was somewhat odd that Cabinet ministers remained tight-lipped throughout the weekend.

Two bombs exploded simultaneously on that unforgettable night, killing two and injuring about 15 others. But a third bomb, found about 30 metres away from where the car was parked, was a dud.

The blast tore up a row of vehicles parked in front of the hotel and shattered all the windows on the front side of this eight-floor hotel, as well as those of two rows of nearby shop houses.

Besides putting an end to the longstanding notion of the CS Pattani as a violence-free zone, the use of a car bomb against this soft target was an indication that the violence in this restive region has crossed a new threshold.

Earlier in the day, a similar incident took place in front of a Yala public school when a bomb, also hidden in a vehicle, exploded mid-afternoon, killing the driver who was said to have been a key bomb-maker for a militant cell in the province.

While many were stunned at the loss of the last safe haven in this restive region, Pattani Task Force commander, Maj-General Thawatchai Samutsakorn, said he had serious doubts as to whether the use of car bombs would become a major component in the militants' fight against the Thai state.

Sunai Phasuk, of Human Rights Watch, sees Saturday's attack as a blunt statement by militants after 10 months of being on the receiving end of the military's shakedown, which has forced some cells to go under and has put some militants on the run.

The controversial shakedown campaign, kicked off in July 2007, has consisted of blind sweeps of remote villages withup to 100 individuals taken in for questioning. Individuals deemed to be in the "high-risk" category have been sent to military boot camps under the guise of "job training" and "counselling".

On the ground, allegations of torture, wrongful arrest, and target killings were piling up towards the end of the term of the military-installed government, which was replaced by the current administration.

But while the blind sweeps succeeded in halting roadside bombings, especially in the more highly contested areas in Yala and Narathiwat, where the suspects behind Saturday's operation were based, top security brass didn't predict how the insurgents would make their comeback.

The car bomb at the CS Pattani Hotel, Sunai said, was more than just a way of telling the security apparatus that they were back.

"They are sending a spine-chilling message across the region that the separatist fighters are striking back, and that no one and nowhere is safe," Sunai said.

Separatist militants in Thailand's southern border provinces are not known for respecting universal principles prohibiting attacks on civilians and civilian targets. Such a radical and brutal ideology feeds on ongoing abuses and injustice committed by Thai security forces in their counterinsurgency operations, Sunai said.

"But nothing can justify human-rights violations. The fight for freedom or acts of retribution against state-sponsored abuses does not give these militants justification to shoot, or blow up civilians like this. This is madness, not a liberation war," Sunai added.

But Thawatchai warned against overrating Saturday's operation, saying it appeared to be the work of one particular cell and added that there is nothing to suggest that other cells would follow suit or that they would have the means to do so.

He also pointed to their blunders - the fact that the third canister didn't go off, and the premature detonation of the car bomb in Yala, which ended up taking the operative's life.

Unlike the previous generation of separatist fighters who camped out in remote pockets along the hills near the Thai-Malaysian border, today's militants, often referred to as "juwae", or fighter, by local residents, are organised in cells or clusters of cells with a high degree of coordination. This enables them to carry out simultaneous attacks across this historically contested region where about 80 per cent of the inhabitants are Muslims of Malay ethnicity.

Thawatchai thinks local residents would be less sympathetic to the juwae's fight if their bombs continue to go off in areas popular among Muslims, such as the CS Pattani.

Indeed, killing Muslims suspected of spying for the Thai state is one thing; a powerful bomb that sees no racial or ethnic lines is another. Two men died from Saturday's blast at the CS Pattani. One was a Muslim security guard and the second a Thai Buddhist cook.

Don Pathan



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