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Businesses keep faith in South after latest attacks

TWELVE HOURS after the warehouse of the rubber factory was set on fire, the smoke was still swirling out of the wreckage.

One fire truck remained to hose down the debris of the rubble from this gigantic storage structure that looked more like a collapsed indoor football stadium.

But Mother Nature wasn’t finished with the Teck Bee Hang rubber factory yet. A strong gust of wind kicked up heavy clouds of smoke. Minutes later, the rubble was spitting out huge balls of flame into the sky like an angry fire-breathing dragon.

The heat spread to the section where propane gas canisters were stored. One by one, the canisters exploded, their blasts shaking this enormous compound.

An Army helicopter swirled high above. The explosions were getting louder and louder, the smoke was filling the sky, billowing over the factory compound.

The 200 or so migrant workers from Myanmar residing in the compound weren’t taking any chances. They grabbed whatever belongings they could and headed for the gate. When asked where they’d spend the night, "I don’t know," one replied.

Teck Bee Hang, along with two other rubber factories, and nine major and medium-sized business outlets in Pattani, Yala and Songkhla, came under arson attacks on Friday morning, between 3 and 4am. Damage was in the billions of baht.

The Friday attacks on business establishments were not the first time separatist insurgents have carried out coordinated raids, causing severe damage to local enterprises. But faith in the economic outlook of the region is still sound as land and property prices climb steadily. Part of the misperception of outsiders, said local residents, is that many believe the region is besieged. But both life and economic activities go on.

Besides economic growth, race relations between ethnic Malay Muslims and Thai/Chinese Buddhists remain sound. The fabric of society holding this ethnically diverse region together is still strong in spite of the fierce violence, which is pretty much confined to security officers and separatist militants. If anything, say the exiled separatist leaders, Friday’s attacks were a slap in the face to the ongoing peace talks they said were hastily put together by Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

The fact that militants are disregarding the presence of a platoon from a cavalry unit less than 1 km away illustrates their indifference to the government’s military presence - as well as the claim the two sides reached a ceasefire agreement during the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, which ends in less than a week. Hardly a day goes by without insurgent violence in this restive region.

As for the activities of the civil society, a network of youth leaders teamed up with ex-detainees last week at the Malaysian Consulate in Songkhla to demand that Kuala Lumpur, in its capacity as official "facilitator" for the peace talks, raise the issue of targeted killings of former detainees who have either been acquitted or are fighting charges in the law courts.

Some observers suspect the Friday attacks on the rubber plants were in reaction to the Supreme Court decision to drop charges against officials involved in the Tak Bai massacre.

But unlike other sub-national insurgencies elsewhere, this one in Thailand’s deep South has yet to evolve into a conflict where either side is willing to confirm outright or deny its activities, be they alleged targeted killings by pro-government death squads or alleged attacks against military and non-military targets by separatists.


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