2007 Marks the Key Year in Thailand’s Southern Insurgency

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 2

January 4, 2007 marked the third anniversary of the outbreak of the current phase of Thailand’s insurgency in the southern provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani. To date, the insurgency has claimed more than 1,900 lives. Many hoped that by this point the adoption of a more conciliatory tone by the government of Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, which was installed after the army-led coup of September 19, 2006, and changes in government policy would have stemmed the violence. In fact, the opposite has occurred, with assassinations, bombings and arson attacks dramatically increasing post-coup. In Narathiwat, during the weekend of January 13-14, for instance, two bombs wrecked a railway line, a soldier was killed and five others seriously injured in a roadside IED attack and a government official and ice cream vendor were gunned down. In Pattani, a police officer was shot and killed. In Yala, the heart of the insurgency, a fireman and another man were shot dead in separate incidents, while insurgents beheaded a Thai Buddhist and his wife, leaving a note which read: “As long as you don’t leave our country Pattani, we will kill all of you crazy Buddhists” (The Nation, January 15).

Despite the increase in violence, the government has confidently predicted that the levels of violence will return to pre-2004 levels by the middle of this year. Most observers, however, fear that attacks will escalate sharply, and that within six months the south will be plunged into full-scale communal and sectarian violence. Whether the new government succeeds or fails in pacifying the south, this year is widely perceived in Thailand as the key year in the country’s ongoing southern insurgency.

Policy Changes Post-September 19, 2006

On September 19, 2006, the head of the armed forces, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, ousted the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup. Thaksin’s dismantling of the security apparatus in the south in 2002 helped ignite the current phase of the insurgency, and his heavy-handed tactics exacerbated separatist sentiment among Malay-Muslims, fueling the violence. Post-coup, the armed forces established the Council for National Security (CNS) and appointed retired General Surayud Chulanont as interim prime minister until fresh elections could be held in late 2007. It was hoped at the time that the installation of the new government would result in policy changes in the south and a decrease in the level of violence. Much was made of the fact that General Sonthi himself is a Muslim, although this was almost certainly overplayed as he is not from the south and does not speak the local language.

The new government promised to make a resolution of the southern insurgency a priority, and it initiated a number of important changes, both in form and substance. The Surayud government ditched the invective of the Thaksin administration and adopted a more conciliatory tone. Surayud promised to establish a constructive dialogue with all parties concerned, re-examine the recommendations made by the National Reconciliation Commission (all but ignored by Thaksin) and even consider the partial implementation of Sharia law in the south. In early November, Surayud visited Pattani and took the important step of apologizing for the excesses of the Thaksin administration, including the Tak Bai incident of October 2004 when 78 protestors were asphyxiated in the back of army trucks. Soon afterwards, the government dropped all charges against 92 people who had participated in the Tak Bai protests. The Surayud government also promised to improve the provision of justice in the south, which is a central grievance of Malay-Muslims. Justice Minister Charnchai Likhitjitta called on Thai officials to be held more accountable for their actions in the south, warning, “If state officials continue to violate the laws, we cannot achieve reconciliation” (Bangkok Post, November 23, 2006). In December, however, the prime minister admitted that correcting past injustices would be difficult because government officials had covered up the evidence (Bangkok Post, December 14, 2006).

Surayud also made efforts to patch up relations with Thailand’s Muslim-majority neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia, whose relations with Bangkok became strained during 2004-2006 as a result of government responses to the violence. Improved relations with Malaysia are particularly important, as Thailand’s southern provinces share a porous border with Kelantan state in northern Malaysia. Thai officials believe some insurgent leaders are orchestrating the violence from Kelantan. Since October 2006, Surayud has patched up relations with Malaysia, and recently Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi praised his Thai counterpart’s “more diplomatic” approach to the problem (Bangkok Post, December 12, 2006). At the ASEAN Summit in Cebu in January 2007, Surayud and Abdullah agreed to reconvene annual talks between the two leaderships and expedite the Joint Development Strategy, which aims to foster economic cooperation between Thailand’s southern provinces and Malaysia’s northern states. The issue of an estimated 50,000 people with dual citizenship, however, remains unresolved. As for Indonesia, during a trip to Jakarta in November last year, Surayud praised the ongoing peace process in Aceh as a model for Thailand to emulate.

The new Thai government has also committed itself to improving socio-economic conditions and educational standards in the south, both seen as drivers of the current insurgency. Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are three of the poorest provinces in Thailand, with high-levels of unemployment, especially among young Muslim males. In an effort to kick-start the economy, the government has designated the three southern provinces, plus Satun and Songkla, as a special economic zone with tax breaks for investors and plans to reinvigorate the 1993 Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle proposal which also covers the five provinces. Given the ongoing levels of violence, however, businessmen are unlikely to perceive the south as a hospitable investment environment. Education standards in the south are poor and getting worse, particularly as teachers have fled the area in large numbers due to the assassinations of 64 members of their profession since January 2004. Low education standards have meant that Malay-Muslims often cannot pass entrance tests for government service and the police. As a result, Thai-Buddhists from outside the provinces fill police positions, exacerbating resentment toward outsiders. The Surayud government has promised to increase the number of university scholarships for Malay-Muslims, although it is hard to see how this program will have much effect as the problem lies in the inadequate provision of primary and secondary education. On language use, the government has quietly allowed Melayu to become a de facto working language in the south, one of the recommendations made by the National Reconciliation Commission, but rejected by Thaksin and the palace as a preliminary step toward independence.

In addition to the above initiatives, the Surayud government has reestablished the security apparatus dismantled by Thaksin, as well as moved to improve inter-agency cooperation. In 2002, Thaksin abolished the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC) and the Civil-Military-Police Unit 43 (CMP-43), and transferred responsibility for security in the south from the army to the police (Thaksin himself was a former police officer). The SBPAC had been established in the early 1980s to help improve governance in the south and assuage Malay-Muslim grievances, while the CMP-43 acted as the Thai security forces’ “eyes and ears.” These two organizations, together with a blanket amnesty for insurgents and the implementation of socio-economic projects, are credited with helping take the heat out of the insurgency in the late 1980s. Following the coup, the new government announced that it would re-establish the SBPAC and CMP-43. Bureaucratic red tape and budgetary issues, however, have delayed the process, much to the frustration of the prime minister. Although the SBPAC was formally restarted on January 3, it is not yet fully staffed and operational.

Another strategy of the Surayud government has been to try and improve inter-agency cooperation in the south. Overlapping jurisdiction and responsibilities among a dizzying array of security agencies and government departments, as well as intense rivalry between the army and police, have hindered effective state responses to the violence since January 2004. The government has sought to address this problem by trying to establish a coherent command and control structure. Toward that end, the CNS has reinvigorated and substantially increased the powers of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), a body created in 1969 to tackle the country’s communist insurgency. The government has likened ISOC to the Department of Homeland Security in the United States, although Thai liberals point to its lack of accountability and accuse the armed forces of using ISOC as a vehicle to tighten political control over the country. General Sonthi will be the director of ISOC while the army chief of staff, General Montri Sangkhasep, will be its secretary-general (The Nation, December 12, 2006). ISOC’s immediate task is to resolve inter-agency rivalry in the south.

The Violence Escalates

Since September’s coup, the Thai government has sought to implement a two-pronged strategy to defeat the insurgency in the deep south: first, a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the majority Malay-Muslim population by improving governance and initiating socio-economic development projects; second, by pursuing a more effective counter-insurgency strategy by resolving inter-agency rivalries and putting in place a better command and control system.

Since September 19, however, the level of violence in the south has escalated significantly. In November 2006, for instance, there were 122 assassinations or attempted assassinations (80 people were killed), up from 81 attacks in October, 64 in September and 59 in August. The number of arson attacks was 26 in November, up from eight in October, while bombings and IED attacks continued unabated (figures provided by Anthony Davies, Jane’s Correspondent, Bangkok). Moreover, as noted earlier, daily assassinations, arson attacks and bombings have continued into 2007.

The tempo of attacks seems to have increased for several reasons. First, the insurgents want to discredit the conciliatory policies of the Surayud government. Second, increased violence is designed to intimidate the population into non-cooperation with the Thai authorities. Third, the insurgents are sending a message that they do not care who is in power in Bangkok, and that they regard any new policies as part of the ongoing process of “Siamization.” Fourth, the escalation of attacks also reflects the insurgents’ growing confidence and sophistication.

Overall, the aim of the insurgents is to shatter the fabric of society in the south, drive the Buddhists out of the area (a trend already underway) and destroy the Thai governmental structure in the south and replace it with a Pattani-Malay system. An independent, Islamic state is the ultimate goal of the hard-core separatists, although other groups may settle for increased autonomy and the righting of past injustices.

In the wake of the New Year’s Eve bombings in Bangkok, which killed three people and injured 38, suspicion fell on the southern insurgents. The government, however, was quick to reject any link between the two, and instead blamed “those which have lost power,” a veiled reference to Thaksin and his supporters. Thaksin himself has denied any involvement, and laid the blame with Islamic militants from the south. The involvement of southern insurgents has been ruled out because it is thought that militants lack the organizational, operational and financial resources to perpetrate attacks outside of the three southern provinces. Their involvement, however, cannot be completely ruled out based on unconfirmed reports that suggest southern militants have conducted reconnaissance missions in Bangkok and Phuket in the past, albeit very amateurish ones (interview with Thai security services, Bangkok, December 2006).

While the Surayud government has ruled out independence for Pattani, it has offered to hold talks with the insurgents. This offer has not been taken up thus far for two reasons. First, the insurgents’ campaign is going well, and the Thai security services have failed to arrest any of the senior operatives. Second, the insurgents fear that the offer is simply a ruse to bring them out into the open, after which they might be targeted for assassination. In short, there is simply no incentive for the militants to engage in talks with the government.

According to the Thai government, the new policies which have been put in place will result in a dramatic improvement in the security situation in the deep south within the next six months. Few observers in Thailand, however, share this optimism. Instead, most predict that the level of violence in 2007 will remain the same, or more likely reach new heights. One NGO with extensive experience on the ground in the south predicts widespread communal and sectarian conflict within six months (interview with a consultant from Human Rights Watch, Bangkok, December 2006).

If the intensity of the violence does increase, the fear among some observers is that the Thai security forces will lash out in frustration, resulting in more Tak Bai-style atrocities. The re-imposition of heavy-handed tactics will further alienate Malay-Muslims and play into the hands of militants. As such, the insurgent leaders will endeavor to provoke a heavy-handed response from the Thai army during the coming months. The consensus of opinion is that 2007 may well be the key year for Thailand’s southern insurgency.