Bringing peace to deep South: mission impossible?

national July 28, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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The car bomb that ripped through a busy street in Yala's Betong district last week killing two people and wounding 42 surprised security officials.

Situated at a location not easy to access due to a long stretch of winding roads through mountainous terrain, Betong has a “natural barrier” that makes it hard for insurgents to target. 
Also, its strong public safety network, “Ta Sapparod”, has boosted its image as a safe tourist haven.
The previous major insurgency attack that rocked Betong took place eight years ago when six banks were simultaneously hit by bomb explosions. 
Security officials believe insurgents grabbed the chance to strike with last week’s attack, as security had become lax. 
“Authorities were vigilant only sometimes and locals were not as cautious as before,’’ an official said.
Since 2004, more than 6,100 people have been killed in near-daily bombings and shootings in the Muslim-majority region near Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia.
As part of psychological warfare strategies, insurgents also aim to demonstrate their capability by targeting “safe zones” declared by authorities, and Betong was one of them. 
It had been proposed that the state of emergency be lifted in the district, along with other deep South areas with minimum insurgency violence.
But it would seem few places are truly safe. The motorcycle bomb attack at Khok Pho Hospital in Pattani in May showed there is no humanitarian principles at play.
Last year several rounds of tentative peace discussions between some rebel factions and the authorities were held, but the talks stalled as the political crisis erupted in Bangkok, culminating in the May coup.
The question over whether the southern border provinces have experienced fewer insurgent attacks since the junta took control of the country may not be easy to answer because the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) seized power shortly before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a period that traditionally results in insurgency attacks peaking.
Although the Internal Security Operations Command has claimed that the number of insurgent attacks compared with the same period last year has declined, locals are not convinced.
Analysts believe the catalyst for the rising insurgency lately is the junta’s tactic of pressuring figures behind insurgency movement through direct talks.
The junta has ruled out granting autonomy for the region in its peace talks with separatists. Article 35 of the interim charter imposed by the junta stipulates that Thailand is a single state that cannot be separated. 
NCPO spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvari reiterated that a proposal to turn the region into a special administrative zone would not be accepted. 
It is believed the idea has fuelled a new generation of separatists who believe they have the upper hand and are staging more violent attacks in a show of force.
 The junta’s firmness in not granting autonomy comes at a time when the Burapha Phayak (Eastern Tigers) military clique has consolidated control in overseeing the fight against the insurgency. The clique is made of military figures from the Second Infantry Battalion – the Queen's Guard. 
Analysts believe that it appears the solidarity of the power structure tackling separatism is at its strongest level in a decade.
At the top of the structure is NCPO and Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, whose policies are delivered to deputy Army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr and Fourth Army Region commander Lt-General Valit Rojanapakdee.
But Burapha Phayak military men still have to prove that having solidarity is enough when tackling this complicated and delicate issue.
Also, uncertainty may arise from the annual military reshuffle in October. 
When Valit took up his new job in April, critics warned that his uncompromising and inaccessible personality might not suit the role. 
But critics believe that Valit will be removed from the post in the reshuffle, as he had no experience in combating southern insurgency.
Udomdej, who chairs a high-level committee tasked with bringing peace to the deep South, may also be moved in the reshuffle. 

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