Both sides want to create a channel of communication to verify which attacks are insurgency-related and which are criminal
Mapping violence in Thailand’s southernmost provinces, where a decade-old wave of insurgency has claimed more than 5,000 lives, is not easy, especially when there is no identifiable group claiming responsibility for the attacks and no neutral body to verify those claims.
As a result, the two warring factions have been left to unilaterally observe unwritten ground rules: no direct attacks against civilians – though “unavoidable collateral damage” is “acceptable”.
Meanwhile the security apparatus, and the pro-government death squads working for “rogue” units, are not supposed to target religious leaders and imams, no matter how close they are to local militant cells. Insurgents reciprocate by excluding Buddhist monks, temples and Chinese religious shrines, as well as public schools and teachers, from their hit list.
Not long after the current wave of insurgency went into full swing in January 2004, insurgents decapitated and castrated soldiers after gunning them down. The idea was to make a contemptuous gesture to the local commanders, nothing more.
Sources in the separatist movements said such acts were a far cry from the actions of South Asian or Middle Eastern jihadists, who often videotape the beheading-execution of their victims and post the clips on the Internet.
As for the insurgents in Thailand’s Malay-speaking South, it took some time for the religious element within the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and other circles to convince the militants to end such practices.
Ironic as it may seem, a nationalist conflict in Thailand’s Malay-speaking South is citing Islamic rules of war to end the practice of decapitation and mutilation, while self-proclaimed holy warriors in South Asia and the Middle East have no qualms about beheading their enemies to make a political statement.
The ground rules in Thailand’s insurgency also extend to prohibiting arson attacks on public schools, the bastion of state-constructed narrative that local Malays dismissed as an assault on their historical and cultural identity.
But because there is little unity among Thai security agencies, and the fact that the command-and-control on the BRN side is still somewhat fluid, while other longstanding separatist groups also have militants in the field, abiding by the ground rule is easier said than done.
Too often, emotion gets the better of combatants on both sides, generating a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat killings.
The attack in February this year on a family in Narathiwat’s Bacho district that ended in the killing of three brothers by two Paramilitary Rangers is a case in point. Authorities insisted that the two Rangers had acted on their own, seeking revenge against a suspect who had entered into a plea bargain with the authorities in exchange for their dropping legal action against him. Authorities said the man whose three sons were killed was affiliated with a local insurgent cell and that he had ordered a hit on a Rangers’ family member some time ago.
Neither Muslim residents nor the insurgents bought the explanation, refusing to believe that the two rangers had acted without permission from above.
There were reports of a third assailant – a Buddhist member of the armed forces – but his identity was not revealed. According to government sources, the third attacker’s identity had to be kept out of the public gaze because it would have raised unwanted questions and undermined the official line – that the killing of the boys was part of a blood feud between local Muslims and something the authorities had nothing to do with.
At about the same time, another series of tit-for-tat killings between Muslim residents and Muslim security officials was taking place in Yala’s Bannang Sata. The killing spree escalated and the “collateral damage” spread as family members – parents, children and toddlers – from both sides were targeted.
Insurgents hit back with a two-day bomb blitz in Yala, including a car bomb that started a fire that burned down an entire block of wooden shophouses in the heart of the city’s busy business district.
They also extended the “warning” attacks to Hat Yai, an area that is supposed to be off-limits but is targeted as a pressure point whenever the insurgents deem that the Thai side has violated the ground rules.
The last time insurgents hit Hat Yai was in March 30, 2012, two weeks after fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra met with 16 separatist leaders in his attempt to kick-start a peace process. The same day also saw a triple car bomb in Yala’s busy Ruammit Street that resulted in at least 13 deaths and more than 130 injuries. Both the Thai Army and the insurgents billed the attacks as a slap in the face for Thaksin. It was a way for the BRN and the insurgents affiliated with their movement to show their disapproval of his intervention.
A similar spike in violence came later that year in November following the shooting death of a young and influential imam, Abdullateh Todir, in Yala’s Yaha district, reportedly assassinated by a pro-government death squad. The “spike” – not so much in terms of the number of attacks but more their brutal nature and the fact that the targets were supposed to be off-limits – lasted for six weeks. Three Buddhist teachers were shot dead and three public schools torched during that period. A pro-government death squad hit back with a gangland-style shooting at a teashop full of Muslims on December 11, 2012 in Narathiwat’s Rangae district, killing four, including an 11-month-old baby girl.
One of the biggest concerns for security agencies is the possibility that the insurgency violence could be expanded to areas outside the Malay-speaking region. Hat Yai is technically off-limits, but an attack against the city signals a strategic violation of the ground rules by the insurgents.
Phuket and Bangkok, on the other hand, are supposed to be totally off the radar screen. That psychological threshold was violated on December 22, 2013 when Phuket police discovered a massive bomb with a blast radius of 500 metres inside a stolen pickup truck parked inside the station’s lot. The vehicle was stolen from Pattani’s Sai Buri in May 2012, so how long it had been parked at the Phuket police station is anybody’s guess.
Separatist sources said the bomb plot deliberately targeted Phuket. The idea, they said, was to send a stern warning to the authorities of what the movement is capable of.
Bangkok’s Ramkhamhaeng Soi 43/1 was hit in May 2013 by a Malay Muslim cell, but the official line is that the attack was part of a local dispute.
Meanwhile, Thai security forces are saying they want to set up a back channel of communication with the insurgents, especially those in direct contact with combatants, to function as a sort of clearing house to verify which attacks are part of the conflict and which are criminal in nature.
Sources in the BRN say they welcome the idea, as it could clear up misunderstandings over who is doing what. But if security forces are planning to use the channel to spread the same half-truths they dish out to the public, the BRN will not be interested in talking to them.
Both warring sides say they are interested in seeing this back channel evolve into something bigger and better. But taking this first initial step won’t be easy, as it requires each side to take a big leap of faith towards trust and confidence in the other.
Don Pathan is a security and development consultant based in Yala. He is also a member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com).