Insurgents say pro-government death squads signal lack of unified position among Thai security agencies and policymakers
A two-man paramilitary Ranger team escorting an elderly Buddhist monk travelling in a beat-up saloon car was no match for six assailants on three motorbikes with automatic weapons.
Exiled rebel sources maintained that the insurgents were going after “legitimate” targets, thus the decision to spare the 70-year-old monk who was sitting in the front of the bullet-ridden vehicle. The incident took place Pattani’s Sai Buri district in the morning of January 24.
Ten days later in Narathiwat’s Bacho district, gunmen killed three brothers aged three, five and nine, in an attempt to liquidate an entire family who had just returned from evening prayers at the village mosque. The father took a bullet to his leg but kept running, and the mother, who was four-months pregnant, was also hit. The parents survived.
At first, Thai authorities moved quickly to dismiss any suggestion that the assailants were officials or a pro-government death squad. Two weeks after the deadly shooting of the three boys, officials are still repeating the same mantra – that insurgents killed the three boys as part of an escalating campaign of violence now targeting innocent civilians, like the policeman’s wife, 28, who was shot dead then set on fire in front of a terrified crowd at an open market in Pattani’s Tambon Ratapanyang on February 9.
A similar incident took place on a Pattani-Narathiwat highway on February 12 when gunmen riding pillion shot dead a female bank employee, 29, and set her body on fire.
A hand-written note to the army chief read: “To the Commander of the Thai Army. This is not the last victim. [This killing is] for the three brothers.”
The following day, February 13, in Pattani’s Mae Lan district, suspected insurgents dressed in military fatigues opened fire on residents giving alms to monks, killing four, including a monk and a boy. Six people received gunshot wounds. The attackers also came with gasoline, but the attempt to set the victims on fire was thwarted by the monk’s security detail.
Police believe at least one of the assailants was hit by return fire, and authorities are seeking tip-offs from locals about where the wounded man might be receiving treatment.
While the monk who survived the January 24 attack on two rangers was “collateral damage”, the victims of the February 13 killings were intentional, said an exiled separatist cadre and member of a longstanding separatist group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C), who was ordered to look into the series of events since the murder of the three boys.
The BRN-C cadre was tight-lipped about the accusation that the boy’s father was a member of a Bacho cell, but pointed out that he had fought the allegation in court and been acquitted.
Over this past weekend, preliminary findings by the Southern Border Provinces Administration and Development Advisory Council said the killing of the three boys may be linked to a paramilitary ranger wanting to settle a score with the Bacho cell after losing a family member. The ranger had acted alone, believing the boys’ father was an insurgent member, the council said.
The suggestion that the ranger had acted alone without instruction from higher-ups drew criticism from the Muslim Attorney Centre, who accused the council members of reaching a premature decision.
The use of death squads against civilian targets to settle scores is not uncommon in the deep South. For the authorities, the challenge has always been how to handle the aftermath of such incidents. No Muslims in this historically contested region believe the separatists could ever shoot at a mosque or a teashop full of people of their own kind.
But it is not in the nature of Thai officials to blame their own people. In the aftermath of the Ai Bayae massacre in June 2009, for example, in which gunmen mowed down a mosque full of Muslims, killing 10 and injured another 12, then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was clever enough not to draw premature conclusions, like blaming the separatist militants. As with other cases, a committee was set up to look into the massacre and over time people forgot about it.
Extrajudicial and target killings, needless to say, have always been a major obstacle to any peace initiative between the government and the separatist movements.
Since February 28 last year, when the Thai government entered into peace talks with the BRN, at least 10 ex-detainees, all of whom are accused of committing treason and are fighting the charges in court, have been shot and killed, presumably by pro-government death squads.
Observers of the southern conflict are reminded of the spike of violence from mid-November 2012 to the New Year, when soft targets that had apparently dropped off the radar screen returned to insurgents’ hit lists. Three Buddhist teachers were killed and three public schools came under arson attack, joining other “legitimate” targets, like police and soldiers. During this period, on December 11, a teashop full of Muslims in Narathiwat’s Rangae district also came under attack, leaving four dead, including an 11-month-old baby girl, and another four injured.
The six-week spike was set off by the target killing of a Yala imam, Abdullateh Todir, 49, on November 14, 2012. Abdullateh was also a member of the Yala Islamic Committee. Abdullateh was one of the clerics who the military and Thai officials at the Malaysia-backed peace talks were competing among themselves to garner support from to act as a go-between with active separatist militants and the exiled leaders. But some rogue unit didn’t see it that way and decided to take him out, according to a military source. About one year before his death, a gunman fired at him but instead hit his daughter. Army Special Forces immediately provide Abdullateh with a security detail.
A cleric like Abdullateh was an ideal person to act as a go-between as he was respected by both warring sides. Both the BRN and senior Thai officials working on the peace process said he was a man of integrity and would have served the peace talks well.
But when a pro-government death squad took him out in November 14, 2012, other clerics immediately dropped the idea of playing interlocutor for any government agencies. Thailand’s lack of unity was costly, as the six weeks of intense violence showed.
No one knows if and when the current spike in violence will end. Buddhist civic groups have called for calm and condemned the killings.
But local Muslims residents and observers generally dismiss the authorities’ claims that the insurgents are using the death of the three boys as an excuse to hit civilian targets. Europe-based Kasturi Mahkota, the president of the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), also issued a statement condemning the massacre of the three boys and blamed a Thai security outfit for the killings.
Groups like Human Rights Watch have pointed to the use of target killings by pro-government death squads as an obstacle to peace initiatives in the South.
For the time being, the Malaysia-backed peace talks that were launched on February 28 last year have hit a big snag as the designated BRN-C “liaison”, Hasan Taib, has thrown in the towel and gone incommunicado.
BRN elders say they are in no mood to talk, especially given the current political deadlock in Bangkok, not to mention the absence of a unified position among Thai security agencies and policymakers.
The peace initiative has managed to secure the participation of the three Pulo factions, but few expect it to change the course of the conflict in this contested region.
Don Pathan is a freelance consultant and member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com).