Thailand Cracks Down on Southern Militants

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 17

Government efforts to resolve the ongoing violence in Thailand’s four southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and Songkhla—which has claimed the lives of 2,400 people since January 2004—continue to emphasize a three-pronged strategy of reconciliation, improving socio-economic conditions and counter-insurgency (COIN) operations. Over the past three months, the COIN element has been the most pronounced, resulting in the detention of nearly 2,000 suspected separatists. At the same time, Malay-Muslim militants continue to achieve success in their campaign to polarize society and destroy the governmental and economic system of the deep south. Meanwhile, the authorities continue to send out confusing signals concerning the involvement of foreign elements.

Government Begins Major Operation

In mid-June, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, chairman of the Council for National Security (CNS), which ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on September 19, 2006, indicated that the armed forces would soon “adjust” existing security policies in the south to achieve “tangible results” before the interim government ended its tenure at the end of the year (Thai News Agency, June 12). Little was made of the comment at the time, but it is now clear that Sonthi’s statement foreshadowed a major operation against militant networks. A week later, a series of large-scale combined army and police operations were launched in villages across southern Thailand suspected of harboring militant operatives. The operations, typically conducted by several hundred police and army personnel at dawn, were aimed at flushing out suspected insurgents and seizing weapons and bomb-making equipment. On July 2, for instance, the police and army raided the Islam Burapha School in Narathiwat, arrested seven suspected bomb-makers living in the school compound and collected DNA from teachers and students. The school’s license was subsequently revoked by the authorities. According to the police, the seven suspects later admitted to carrying out bomb attacks in more than 20 locations (The Nation, August 24). On July 30, 50 suspected militants were detained in raids across Narathiwat, including alleged leaders of the Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK), the armed wing of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinasi (BRN-C), the group credited with carrying out the majority of attacks in the south. By the end of July, the security forces had detained nearly 2,000 people, of which 360 were alleged to be wanted militants, with the rest labeled as collaborators and militant sympathizers destined for “re-education” camps. The raids also netted a large number of weapons, bomb-making equipment, maps, camouflaged jackets and lists of names.

According to Colonel Akkara Tipparoj, the Royal Thai Army’s (RTA) main spokesman in the south, the raids were the result of three main factors. First, the population in the southern provinces had more faith in the security services, and they were more willing to come forward with information concerning the location of militants. Second, the security forces were acting on information provided to them by detained members of the BRN-C/RKK during interrogation sessions. Third, militants were turning themselves in due to growing divisions within the separatist movement (Bangkok Post, July 30).

The RTA’s claims have been meet with considerable skepticism within Thailand. Some question how it is that the security forces have been able to discover the identities of so many militant leaders and operatives when only a few months ago General Sonthi admitted that the government did not know who was behind the attacks. Others have suggested that the large-scale offensive is simply a public relations exercise designed to allay growing public frustration—particularly among Thai-Buddhists in the south—over the authorities’ lackluster performance during the past four years and inability to contain the violence. A third theory is that the shakedowns and detentions were launched to justify a massive increase in defense spending demanded by the armed forces. In July, the cabinet agreed to boost defense spending by 24 percent to $4.4 billion; this comes after a 34 percent increase for the 2006-2007 financial year. The increase in defense spending—the lion’s share of which will go to the RTA—will be used to purchase more modern equipment, including 96 armored personnel carriers from Ukraine, unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicles and bomb disposal robots. The shortage of equipment for COIN operations was highlighted on July 17 when an explosive device in Yala claimed the life of a bomb disposal expert who was not wearing any protective clothing.

Human rights groups have also been critical of the recent crackdown. According to the Thai Muslim Lawyers’ Association, the authorities have insufficient evidence to charge those detained, while NGOs such as the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) have pointed to the real potential for extrajudicial violence against detainees. A major concern is that the arrests and detentions will simply widen the trust deficit between Malay-Muslims and the Thai authorities, thus fueling separatist sentiment. In response to these concerns, the body charged with conducting COIN operations in the south, the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), has issued an order to the police, army and paramilitary rangers warning of disciplinary or legal action against those who commit abuses against detainees (Thai News Agency, August 3). Under the emergency decree that covers the south, however, detainees can be held for 30 days without charge and members of the security forces are immune from prosecution.

Surayud Pushes Reconciliation Policy with Southern Militants

Intensive COIN operations against southern militants are only one part of the government’s strategy to resolve the violence. Since being appointed by the CNS in October 2006, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has stressed the need for reconciliation. Despite criticism that this policy has not been paying dividends, Surayud has reaffirmed his government’s commitment to it. Since the coup, Surayud has also expressed willingness to talk to the leaders of the insurgent groups. The extent to which the government has made progress toward achieving that end remains unclear, however.

In late April, for example, it was reported that Defense Minister Boonrawd Somtas had held talks with insurgents. In May, the prime minister’s security adviser, General Wattanachai Chaimuanwong, alleged that secret talks had begun with high-level militant leaders. In June, however, Surayud conceded that attempts to establish dialogue with the separatists had made little headway: “We have been trying to make contact with them but received no response” (Bangkok Post, June 24). Yet, a month later the prime minister had changed tack, telling reporters that some progress had been made thanks to the efforts of Kuala Lumpur; however, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar muddied the waters further when he said his country had not played any role in facilitating discussions between Bangkok and the insurgents (Bernama, July 30). In a major report published by Human Rights Watch in August entitled No One is Safe, the NGO claims to have made contact with senior members of BRN-C who told the authors that their goal was to “liberate” the southern provinces from Thailand and that they were not interested in dialogue with Bangkok. According to the report, BRN-C leaders had stated that another three to five years of violence would be necessary before they were in a strong enough position to negotiate with the government.

Improving Socio-Economic and Educational Standards

In addition to its reconciliation policy, the Surayud government has been trying to improve socio-economic and educational standards in the south. Thailand and Malaysia have agreed to implement a “3Es Program” designed to improve educational, employment and entrepreneurship. Bangkok is paying particular attention to education, which General Sonthi recently identified as one of the primary causes of the violence. In a speech delivered in Songkhla, Sonthi said poor educational standards had allowed religious schools to hire teachers who preached separatist ideas, thus “brainwashing” young people into committing acts of violence (Thai News Agency, May 21). To weed out these teachers, the Education Department is finalizing plans to revamp Islamic education in the south, creating standardized curricula for Islamic schools and programs to screen owners and teachers. A new agency under the ministry will have the power to issue and revoke licenses for Islamic schools (Bangkok Post, July 12).

While the government has continued to adhere to a policy of reconciliation, it has also been steadfast in its refusal to consider autonomy for the south. When Defense Minister Boonrawd suggested it might be possible to give the south special administrative region status like Hong Kong and Macau in China, the prime minister rejected the idea, arguing that all parts of Thailand must be under the same law (Thai News Agency, July 12). This came as a disappointment to many observers who believe that genuine autonomy for the south, or at least some form of decentralization, is the only credible solution to the violence.

The effectiveness of the government’s current offensive against Malay-Muslim militants remains to be seen. So far, it has had little effect on the daily catalogue of killings, bombings and arson attacks. Militant policy remains unchanged: to polarize society, attack symbols of the Thai state and destroy the local economy, all in pursuit of a separate Islamic state. To polarize society, the tactic of beheadings has become more common, with 10 committed so far this year, one-third of the total. The militants have achieved some notable successes against the security forces with IEDs—killing nine soldiers on May 9, 11 paramilitary rangers on May 31 and seven soldiers on June 15. According to official figures, between January 1 and June 30, 1,292 incidents of violence were recorded in the south, leading to 608 deaths (30 police, 53 army, six teachers/civil servants and 519 civilians) and 1,202 injuries (Bangkok Post, July 29). Militants have also increased their attacks against the economic infrastructure of the south, including a series of coordinated bomb attacks in the south’s commercial and tourism capital, Hat Yai in Songkhla, in late May. Militants have also begun sabotaging the south’s rail network, leading to the temporary suspension of rail services.

Foreign Elements?

Regarding the involvement of foreign elements, government officials continue to make unsubstantiated allegations that shed little light on the issue and serve only to annoy Thailand’s neighbors. In May, RTA spokesman Colonel Akkara stated that captured insurgents had admitted to the presence of foreign trainers in the south, believed to be from Indonesia (Reuters, May 14). This was followed a few days later by comments from General Wattanachai—who earlier in the year had said militants were influenced by al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya (JI)—that militants were receiving weapons and bomb-making training from Cambodian Muslims and Indonesians (Bangkok Post, May 21). Both the Indonesian and Cambodian authorities rejected these accusations. Yet, in June it was reported that the RTA had asked the Foreign Ministry to suspend issuing visas to Cambodian Muslims, alleging that 20,000 had entered the country legally since 2005 but that only 10 percent had returned home (Thai News Agency, June 7). The number of Cambodian Muslims and Rohinghas from Burma entering the country illegally and heading to the south was also giving the security services cause for concern. Later in the month, Wattanachai asserted that Cambodian Muslims with links to JI had entered the country and were conducting atrocities. Following angry comments from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who accused Bangkok of looking for a scapegoat for the violence, Wattanachai backtracked on his earlier comments stating, “No foreigners are involved in the situation in the south” (Bangkok Post, June 13). The allegations recalled spats with Malaysia when the Thaksin government had claimed Malay-Muslim militants were undertaking training in Malaysia (Terrorism Monitor, March 15, 2007).

According to Defense Minister Boonrawd, the insurgents are “on their last legs” (AFP, June 21). Such optimism, however, seems seriously misplaced. While the number of violent incidents has dropped, the intensity and sophistication of attacks is increasing. Moreover, it remains unclear whether the security forces’ current offensive can be sustained and whether it will produce a positive outcome in the long-term.