As highlighted in the last edition of Terrorism Focus, the pace of violence, now a series of daily incidents, is confirming the impression of pre-insurgency conditions. The warnings issued by the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) website (www.pulo.org) “to avoid police stations, railway stations and airports” duly materialized since on October 29 the two bombing incidents in Yalan province appeared to be targeting security forces. This was followed on November 3-4 with further attacks on security officials, in which a police sergeant and a police major were assassinated.
Bangkok appears at a loss as how to control the rising tide, at just the time when the nature of the violence appears to be taking on more overtly sectarian tones. For the attacks have not been confined to security targets. Aside from Buddhist citizens being inevitably caught in the cross-fire, a spate of beheadings of Buddhists appear to have no motivation other than reprisal. On one victim the message on the body spelled out that this was “…not enough. More will be killed in revenge for the innocents that were killed in the Tak Bai massacre.” The reference is to the incidents where heavy-handed arrests caused the death of 85 protestors, most of whom appearing to have died of suffocation.
More ominously, on October 28 authorities defused a 22-pound time bomb in Narathiwat, only minutes before it was set to explode at a food stall where crowds gather to give offerings to Buddhist monks. Government offices had earlier received an unsigned statement, warning that “Buddhists who want to save their lives should leave our land immediately or we will kill one of you for every one of our brothers killed by soldiers.” More recently, on November 6 unidentified assailants sprayed machine-gun fire at a Buddhist shrine in Yala province, killing an elderly Buddhist.
Observers have long feared the ability of the militants to exploit the rising pace of violence, strengthen an evolving alliance between younger Muslim radicals and older separatist groups, and revive a dormant insurgency of Thailand’s southernmost provinces where Thailand’s minority Muslim population predominate. The unease has only increased with Bangkok’s security response under martial law keeping pace with, or outpacing, the brutality of the insurgent violence. The clumsiness of the government response is summed up by PULO, in that “the Thai government, in order to defend [against] and isolate the guerrillas, chose ex-gangsters and ex-bandits to be chiefs of military villages…the overall co-ordination of these forces [was to] the Thai army, which sometimes used these units for offensive operations.” (www.pulo.org). Since early January, when militants raided a Thai army camp in Narathiwat province, killing four soldiers and capturing 300 weapons, more than 450 people have been killed. Over that period there have been two peaks in the violence, on April 28 when troops and police shot dead 106 machete-wielding Muslim militants, and the 84 fatalities resulting from the October 26 arrests.
Unease at developments in southern Thailand is now developing on a regional level, as analysts warn of a growing ‘arc of instability’ stretching from southern Thailand through parts of Indonesia to the Philippines. There may already be some early manifestations of this. The October 26 event brought out hundreds of Malaysians demonstrating outside the Thai embassy in Kuala Lumpur protesting against “genocide”, as sentiments were fanned by the national media that likened Bangkok’s crackdown to “the rounding up of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland.” Suspicions are becoming mutual, the Thai newspaper Nation reported a confidential dossier from Thai intelligence pointing the finger at the Malaysian opposition Parti si-Islam Malaysia (PAS) for fueling the violence in southern Thailand.
Similarly, the Thai embassy in the Indonesian capital Jakarta warned the half a million or so Thai expatriates in the country to remain on the alert for harassment by groups such as al-Habib Mohammed Rizieq Shihab’s Islamic Defenders Front. Rizieq, who spent time in prison with suspected Jemaah Islamiah leader Abu Bakar Basyir, shares Basyir’s vision of a pure Islamist state in Southeast Asia stretching from Burma to Papua and has been making overt threats against Bangkok, demanding that it “grant autonomy to the Muslim community in the South, or else we Muslims from the Malayan region will go there to help our brothers.”
On November 5 the Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, candidly admitted that he was “convinced that the violence will be intensified” as the militants attempt to goad Bangkok. The government’s challenge will be to affect under fire a move from a military response to a more flexible anti-insurgency initiative, one which will be seen to include the participation of local Muslim leaders.
But his ability to avoid playing into the militants’ hands in this way is heavily circumscribed by the perceptions of the Thai Buddhist majority in the country, who will demand reassurance on security. The question is how much time there is left to reconcile the two opposing currents. With an election only four months away, Thaksin’s room to maneuver can only narrow.