Thai security forces blamed 'drug-crazed Islamists' for the mosque stand-off that ended in slaughter; now they say family feuds are behind the latest wave of violence in the deep South
Ten years ago yesterday, more than 100 young men armed with little more than knives and machetes charged against 10 police outposts and one police station.
Believing they were protected by a mystical power that made them invincible, the men were charging towards almost-certain death.
These so-called insurgents were met with a hail of machinegun fire. Rules of engagement permitted state security officials to shoot to kill.
After attacking an outpost, one group of 32 retreated to the nearby historic Krue Se Mosque, where they took up a defensive position with the few weapons they had. They then commandeered the mosque’s loudspeaker and called on Malay Muslims of the region to rise up against the invading Siamese forces and liberate their historic homeland.
In Songkhla’s Saba Yoi district, 19 young men, part of the same network of “mystical-leaning” insurgents, were lined up and shot dead by the authorities at point-blank range, execution style. The 19 came from different schools but all played for a local football team.
Fearing that local residents would turn against the authorities, General Pallop Pinmanee, the highest-ranking officer at the Krue Se Mosque stand-off, called for an all-out bombardment before nightfall.
For security officials, the fact that well over 100 young men were willing to charge against machineguns was nothing less than disturbing. It was generally concluded that the incident was not a suicide mission but a suicidal one. After all, the insurgents had some form of weapons and they thought they were invincible.
The militants were dismissed by government officials as a bunch of drug-crazed youths who had embraced a defective strain of Islam and a distorted version of history. It was a line the Thai government continued to use for other insurgency-related incidents.
However, after the government declared in February last year that it was entering into peace talks with longstanding separatist groups, the official explanation for what’s fuelling insurgency violence – drugs, militant Islam and false history – had to make way for a new one.
The new official line, which is just as unconvincing, blamed much of the killing on local family feuds – Muslims killing Muslims to settle old scores.
One recent case that comes to mind was the killing of three brothers, aged three, five and nine, in Narathiwat’s Bacho district on February 3 this year by at least two Muslim men, both Paramilitary Rangers, who authorities said had acted on their own. The boys’ parents were wounded but survived the incident.
According to various sources, there was a third assailant, a Buddhist security official, but his identity was kept secret as it would have contradicted the official line that the killings were part of a feud between local Muslims.
But authorities knew that their official version of events would carry little weight with the insurgents, who would be looking for retaliation over the death of the boys. Suspects had to be produced to contain the situation. But it took the authorities four weeks to present the suspects. For the insurgents, it was too little and too late.
Unsurprisingly, the killing of the three brothers sparked a spate of violence in the following days. Three Buddhist women were shot dead, their bodies set alight. A Buddhist monk and four lay people were also gunned down by suspected insurgents.
A hand-written left at the site of one attack read: “To the Commander of the Thai Army. This is not the last victim. [This killing is] for the three brothers.”
And then came the shooting death of an elderly couple on February 23 in Yala’s Bannang Sata district. The 15 or so assailants, some of whom were local Defence Volunteers, set fire to the couple’s home, a pick-up truck, a car and a motorcycle.
Again, authorities trotted out the same line: That the incident was personal in nature and that the superiors of the Defence Volunteers involved had nothing to do with the attack.
Sources on the insurgents’ side said there was some truth to the family-feud claim, but they dismissed outright the notion that all the attackers’ superiors were clueless about events on February 23 in Bannang Sata, especially when the tit-for-tat killings had been going on for months.
Leaflets supposedly passed out by an insurgent cell identified Defence Volunteer Abdulhakim Darasae as the lead suspect for the February 23 attack.
On March 5, a Buddhist gardener was murdered in the district, presumably as part of insurgents’ effort to discredit the security apparatus.
Things were pretty quiet for a few days, until on March 27 when gunmen snuck into the house of Marosidi Kachaladi, 42, in Bannang Sata, and shot him dead while he was sleeping. One local resident suspected that Marosidi was targeted because he was closely associated with the local security forces.
Then on April 2, a village chief and two female deputies were killed in an ambush. One of the deputies was beheaded.
Insurgents struck again on April 6 and 7 and this time they took the fight to the heart of Yala, unleashing four simultaneous explosions, including a car bomb that started a fire that gutted nearly an entire block of shophouses. One man, a Muslim, was killed in the explosion. The following morning, a warehouse just a few metres away from the main army camp was razed to the ground by an arson attack.
Ten days later, on April 17, the plague of violence in Bannang Sata continued when suspected insurgent Mukta Ali-mama was gunned down along with his six-year-old son. Grisly photos of the son’s body were spread via the social media, prompting condemnation from local civil-society organisations from both ends of the political spectrum.
Two days later, on April 19, the parents of Abdulhakim, the Defence Volunteer allegedly behind the February 23 attack on the elderly couple, were gunned down along with their two-year-old niece.
Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha ordered the recently appointed commander of the Fourth Army Area, Lt-General Walit Rojanapakdi, to visit Bannang Sata district, which he did on April 21. The visit was little more than a public relations exercise given the fact that the Army, or any Thai state agency, is not seen as an honest broker by many in the deep South. After all, local Malay Muslims and separatist militants don’t believe that the “rogue” members of the Army’s Paramilitary Rangers and the Ministry of Interior’s Defence Volunteers acted without consent from higher-ups.
There has been talk of bringing the feuding clans in Bannang Sata to the table to negotiate a peaceful settlement. Some suspect that the suggestion could be an attempt to whitewash the authorities, as they are likely to pin everything on Abdulhakim in the same manner that the two Paramilitary Rangers “confessed” to the killings of the three boys in Bacho.
Face-to-face talks between the feuding clans may bring a much-needed pause in the ongoing tit-for-tat killings. But insurgent sources say it won’t change the nature of the conflict between them and the state.
Don Pathan is a freelance consultant based in Yala. He is also a member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com).