The crisis in southern Thailand took an ominous turn with the announcement on November 3 that martial law has been declared in two districts of the province of Songkhla. This is the first extension of martial law beyond the three troubled provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala (where a state of emergency is already in force). In effect, this is a tacit admission that Bangkok has been unable to stop the almost 2-year insurgency and halt the spread of Muslim secessionist violence.
Martial law has also been declared along the border zones with neighboring Malaysia in an attempt to stem infiltration of militants. This latest decree follows a declaration on November 1 issued by the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), a Thai Muslim separatist group, calling for self-government in the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. The statement warned that the conflict could degenerate into a war between religions in the kingdom unless Bangkok grants the region the right to self-government. In response, the military has set up a website (www.southpeace.go.th) to counter PULO’s “psychological warfare through the internet,” according to a report in the Bangkok Post (www.bangkokpost.co.th).
The rate of violence in southern Thailand is now virtually daily, and so far over 1,100 have been killed. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration responded by ruling out autonomy for the southern region, which is mainly Muslim and Malay speaking in majority Buddhist country, but the Thai military has underlined their incapacity to douse secessionist flames—and the rise in common criminality—by having recourse to the formation of civilian militia groups. So far the number of recruits has topped 2,000, but both training and armament remains rudimentary. Recently the military has announced plans to offer weapons training and spying techniques for up many thousands more villagers, to combine with vocational skills for a jobs program, due to start as soon as next month. These are to counter the estimated 4,000 to 5,000 insurgents in the three southern provinces “or two for each village in … areas most heavily infiltrated by separatists” (www.bangkokpost.co.th).
Further evidence of the mounting threat is found in a new trend—demonstrating sophistication and organization—the use of coordinated attacks. On November 2, a series of blasts near electricity poles and a transformer substation detonated at intervals of 10 minutes for over an hour, and resulted in a total loss of power in Narathiwat town. In late October, a similar series of coordinated attacks targeted at least 43 security posts over the three provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala. In one spate over the night of October 26-27, militants carried out at least 20 attacks, mostly targeting the new civilian militias. Seven people were killed and dozens of weapons seized. Prime Minister Shinawatra himself nearly fell victim to this new tactic when militants marked his November 7 visit to Narathiwat province with a series of coordinated attacks against over 20 government targets, including police stations, check points and school buildings (www.bangkokpost.co.th). At one point Shinawatra’s motorcade was forced to make a detour when security forces found a 22-pound bomb planted in a tree located about 200 yards from a restaurant scheduled for his visit.
While increasing sophistication in terror methods automatically signals the possibility of outside influence, both the government at Bangkok and the PULO have so far downplayed this interpretation. However, Lukman Lima, the acting head of the Pattani United Liberation Organization, in an interview with AP has warned that “If the government opts to kill, and kill without reason, perhaps fighters from Indonesia and Arab countries will help us… to join the struggle for an independent homeland,” and has already referred to financial support for the insurgents arriving from “Islamic sympathizers in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia” (see Terrorism Focus, Volume 2, Issue 18).