Emergency Decree Extended in Southern Thailand

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 11

A series of violent attacks in Thailand’s southern provinces between March 14 and April 14 seemed to reinforce disturbing trends in the ongoing insurgency. First, bombing attacks perpetrated by the insurgents have become more frequent, sophisticated and deadly. Second, women and children are increasingly becoming victims of the violence. Third, the sectarian nature of the conflict has become much more pronounced, with revenge attacks seemingly on the rise. Fourth, anger among Thai-Buddhists at the failure of the authorities to protect them is rising fast. With government and royal support, Thai-Buddhists are forming self-defense militias, thereby exacerbating the sectarian nature of the conflict. Fifth, the violence is spreading beyond the three provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat to include neighboring Songkhla. Sixth, more than three years into this current phase of the insurgency, the Thai security forces are still at a loss to identify the masterminds behind the violence.

In the worst atrocity so far this year, on March 14 insurgents stopped a commuter van in Yala and executed the nine Thai-Buddhist passengers, including three adult females and one young girl. The attack sparked outrage across Thailand, leading to protest marches in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Thailand’s English language press reflected growing public dissatisfaction with the Thai government’s failure to stem the violence and also questioned whether the post-September 19 coup policy of reconciliation was paying dividends. On March 16, the Bangkok Post declared “Southern Policy Not Working,” while three days later The Nation argued “Soft Approach in South Failing.” In response to the attack, the government imposed a curfew in certain areas of Yala, the first time a curfew has been used since the violence began in January 2004. Thai Prime Minister General Surayud Chulanont, however, rejected calls for the imposition of a more hard line policy toward the militants, arguing: “We are not going to use violence to counter violence. We are not going to use heavy-handed methods like in the past. We are going to follow the rule of law” (Straits Times, March 21). Nevertheless, Bangkok has decided to beef up its security presence in the south by dispatching an additional 2,000 troops, 3,300 policemen and 1,700 paramilitary rangers.

A few days after the bus attack, unknown assailants hurled grenades into the dormitory of an Islamic boarding school in Songkhla province, killing three Thai-Muslim students aged 12, 14 and 17. Angry villagers barred the police from entering the crime scene, and blamed the security forces for carrying out the attack in revenge for the commuter van attack. Later that day, in an incident widely viewed as a tit-for-tat response, insurgents opened fire on a pick-up truck carrying 19 Thai-Buddhist females, killing three.

As the violence escalates, Thai-Buddhists in the south are increasingly forming armed militias to protect their villages. This is being actively supported by Bangkok and the Thai royal family. Analysts, however, fear that this trend will inevitably result in Thai-Buddhists taking the law into their own hands. A harbinger of things to come took place on April 9, when village defense volunteers in Yala opened fire on a pick-up truck carrying Thai-Muslims returning from the funeral of a village headman killed earlier in the day: two 12 year-old boys and two 25 year-old university students were killed. The army initially blamed insurgents for the attack, but then admitted that defense volunteers had opened fire because “insurgent sympathizers” inside the truck had provoked them with verbal taunts and by throwing stones. Following the deaths, local villagers staged angry protests and called on the authorities to punish those responsible.

There have been, however, several positive developments. On March 28, the police and army raided a village in Narathiwat, arresting 11 suspected militants and seizing M-16 rifles, shotguns, various small arms and bomb-making materials. Earlier, as part of an ongoing effort to improve security cooperation between Thailand and Malaysia, the foreign ministers of both countries agreed to build a bridge between Narathiwat and Kelantan state in Malaysia to better monitor and regulate border crossings, and also agreed to step-up joint border patrols between the Thai and Malaysian armed forces (Terrorism Monitor, March 15).

Despite these developments, the overall situation in the south remains dire. Coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin has admitted that the violence has intensified post-coup and that the security services have still not been able to identify the ringleaders behind the violence. Moreover, in a frank admission to the press, the prime minister’s security adviser, General Wantanchai Chaimuanwong, said that the insurgents were being influenced by al-Qaeda and the Taliban “with the goal of creating a pure Islamic state” (Straits Times, March 21). With no break in the violence in sight, the government has extended the emergency decree in the three provinces by three months, from April 19 to July 19. The decree gives the security services widespread powers to arrest and detain suspects and grants them immunity from prosecution. Nevertheless, a report released by Human Rights Watch Asia on April 18 warned that the “impunity of government forces” together with poorly trained and abusive militias were fueling the insurgency.