The pace of Islamist insurgent activity in southern Thailand has stepped up to the point of near constant violence over the past two weeks. In the first week of October, Muslim extremists mounted a series of 10 shootings and bombings that left six dead. Most attacks were against members of the security forces or administration employees and aimed at accumulating weaponry. As the Bangkok Post reported, following the confiscation of over 20 sticks of dynamite from a private house, the level of raids for arms has prompted local authorities to issue warnings to local governors and maintain constant checks on firearms stores.
Over a two-day period last week, an armed attack on a government office and police station, several bomb attacks and extended gunfights on homes of local officials and security personnel in Pattani province’s Kapor district occurred. Then a bomb hidden in a motorcycle and targeted at soldiers detonated in the provincial capital, while in Narathiwat province gunmen stormed the house of a village chief and masked attackers raided the houses of local security volunteers in the province’s Tak Bai district. In the latest attack on October 13, a policeman and a retired official were shot by assailants armed with assault rifles.
The violent peak appears as a response to the appointment earlier this month of Gen. Sirichai Thunyasiri to command a special security force in the country’s Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces situated near the Malaysian border. These have seen over 360 Islamist-related fatalities since the beginning of the year when an attack on an army camp netted a haul of almost 300 M-16 assault rifles.
The Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces, uniquely in Buddhist Thailand, have a majority Muslim population, made up mostly of ethnic Malays. While Bangkok has been careful to qualify many of the attacks as perpetrated by oil, arms and narcotics smugglers, the region has long harbored grievances against the central government over discrimination in employment, education and economic management. A decades-long separatist agitation was defused following a government amnesty in the 1980s, but has recently revived. Observers point to the internal radicalizing influence of the Muslim religious boarding schools, known in Malay as pondok — some charged with military training — and the influence of external actors such as the southeast Asian Jemaah Islamiyya. However, tensions among the Muslim community have also been raised from reports of disappearances and extra-judicial killings carried out by members of the Thai police, operating under the loose conditions of martial law imposed in the region since January.
While efforts have been made both to increase operational efficiency among the security services, at the same time as softening the abuses of the hardline approach blamed on ‘low-ranking’ officers, the crisis shows no sign of abating. Optimistic estimates give two years as the minimum time required to regain full control of the zone, which will have to combine improvements in security structure from the present disjointed efforts with wide-ranging economic reform.