Insurgents are accused of violating humanitarian principles; meanwhile Thai security forces continue to place monks and children in line of fire
Sunday’s raid by militant separatists on a Joh I Rong hospital in Narathiwat couldn’t have come at a better time for the Thai side.
The incident has provided a much-needed pretext for the military to attack armed insurgents who continue to discredit the government’s peace effort with MARA Patani, the umbrella organisation of six longstanding separatist organisations that the militants say does not represent them.
Bangkok is struggling to justify talks with MARA Patani whose lack of traction is being underscored by a spike in violence in the far South. The Thai side is also facing ill-feeling among the local community over a Bangkok court’s decision to seize the 14-rai grounds of an Islamic boarding school, Jihad Withya pondok, in Pattani’s Tambon Tha Dan, Yaring district, which was used as an insurgent training facility a decade ago.
The land belongs to the family of Abduloh Waemanor, a local cleric and suspected Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) member who fled the region back in 2005.
Thai military officers have quietly requested that the Waemanor family appeal the court’s decision, but they refuse to do so, saying they are unable to come to terms with the state’s action.
Some in the separatist movement are suggesting the decision not to appeal was a deliberate move to drive a bigger wedge between local Malay Muslims and the state. Judging from the reaction of local residents – an outpouring of support and sympathy – the alleged strategy appears to have worked.
The seizing of the Jihad Withya pondok – part of a venerable institution that forged the cradle of Islamic civilisation in Southeast Asia – reinforces a notion that the Thai state has never dealt fairly with the Malays of Patani.
The court decision sent shock waves through the region, serving as a warning of what the future could hold. Thai authorities see the pondoks as a hotbed for recruitment and indoctrination of the current generation of insurgents.
Local residents take a different view, pointing out that the Patani historical and cultural narrative is ingrained in their society, making it unfair to single out any institution.
The Thai side has made it clear that the raid on the Narathiwat hospital was a gross violation of humanitarian and international norms for which the militants should be condemned in the strongest terms.
This is not the first time that insurgents have targeted a medical facility, however. In May 2014, three people were seriously wounded when militant separatists detonated a bomb in the parking lot of Pattani’s Khok Pho hospital, damaging at least 50 vehicles.
Yet the militants consider the Thai military’s ongoing efforts to demonise them via references to humanitarian principles a case of the pot calling the kettle black. The security forces’ underhand tactics in managing a decade or so of conflict in the Malay-speaking South are well documented, as is the culture of impunity among its personnel.
The Thai military has been criticised for positioning outposts in the grounds of temples and schools, thereby placing monks and students in line of fire. Such decisions not only violate international humanitarian norms, they are also made without consulting local residents.
Insurgent attacks against schools and temples were a regular occurrence a decade ago but now take place less frequently, and only as retaliation for instances in which the Thais are deemed to have “crossed the line” and/or violated unwritten rules of engagement.
Separatist sources say the scores of militants behind the recent attacks were aware that using the hospital as a staging point for an attack on Paramilitary Rangers was a violation of international norms. Accordingly, they made a concerted effort not to harm the people inside the hospital.
But they didn’t foresee that the Thai side would “milk” the situation to such a degree, even rounding up local imams to carry out a “prayer for peace” at the hospital. Observers outside the region likely saw the prayer event as a slap in the face for the insurgents. But locals know that the clerics would have been under pressure to go with the flow or else risk being accused by the military of being uncooperative.
Claims by the authorities that a nurse was tied up were discredited by the nurse in question, who told reporters she quickly realised the insurgents weren’t out to harm people in the hospital.
The vast majority of separatist militants operate under the BRN, whose leadership continues to keep a distance from the Kuala Lumpur-facilitated peace initiative between the Thai government and MARA Patani.
Although MARA Patani claims to have BRN members on board, militants and sources in the movement dismiss any suggestion that the movement’s ruling council endorses the peace initiative.
The raid on the Paramilitary Ranger unit, which is situated next to the hospital, was part of an ongoing spike in violence after more than a year of relative quiet.
Don Pathan is a founding member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com) and a Thailand-based freelance security and development consultant.