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Thailand’s War in the South Carries On, Peace Talks in Doubt
Dr. Jeff M. Moore
The war in southern Thailand that began in earnest in 2004 shows no signs of stopping. Critics of the government’s Counterinsurgency (COIN) operations abound. Some insinuate, through clever innuendo, Bangkok is waging heavy suppression akin to Saddam Hussein’s war against the Marsh Arabs at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. While the Royal Thai Government (RTG) could certainly do more to improve the quality of its COIN operations and increase its legitimacy, it is not the incompetent monster detractors make it out to be. On the contrary, the RTG has some highly productive COIN programs and has won some excellent victories along the way. The way forward, however, remains a long and hard one.
Mrs. Angkhana Neelaphaijit, head of the southern Thai NGO, Working Group for Justice and Peace, recently levied harsh charges against the RTG that typify criticisms of Bangkok’s treatment of the war. As an aside, she is also the wife of disappeared lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, a man who was serving as a defense attorney to accused insurgents. Sometimes touted as a “human rights lawyer,” Somchai was a prominent defender of convicted terrorists from the Pattani United Liberation Organization in years past, something his supporters seem to hide. This does not justify, however, in any way shape or form, his disappearance – allegedly at the hands of the government.
At any rate, Mrs. Neelaphaijit, on 23 May, asserted Thai security personnel had raped untold numbers of Malay women in Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani, many of who had been forced to marry their rapists – marriages that were doomed to fail because Malay women could not adjust to Thai Buddhist culture. She alludes that their societies are too different to co-exist under the same roof.
At the same time, she makes some sensational accusations that should indeed be investigated. One victim, say says, was a 10-year old. Amnesty International supported Mrs. Neelaphaijit in her allegations.[i]
To be sure, some rapes have surely happened. The government has paid 200,000 baht to women who have made such charges, lending credence to the allegations.[ii] As long as these instances are occurring, and even if just a handful are real accusations, Bangkok will have difficulty establishing legitimacy and instead will appear heinous and sinister in the eyes of a swath of the far south. And this view is certainly valid and long lasting as well.
But to paint a picture that wanton rape proliferates the far south is incorrect. Some Thai soldiers have fallen in love and then lived with and/or married Malay women, and some of them have been murdered for it. On 22 May 2005, for example, former soldier Supachai Honsaengdee, a 20-year old Thai Buddhist from Khon Kaen, was assassinated in front of his 20-year old, live-in girlfriend, a Thai Malay Muslim. His assailants burst into their Narathiwat home in the middle of the night and shot him twice in the head with a .45 caliber pistol.[iii] According to extremist ideology in Thailand’s far south, “proper” Malay Muslim women are not supposed to associate with Thai Buddhist men, hence justifying assassination.
Moreover, to indicate only government forces have committed atrocities in the south is untruthful. On the evening of 1 May 2013 in Ban Khok Muang, a small hamlet in Pattani, four insurgents on motorcycles rode up to a grocery store, disembarked, and fired as many as 100 rounds from their M-16s at an unsuspecting family and their friends who were eating and drinking. Witnesses said the killers fired into the bodies and heads of the victims as they lay on the ground. The dead, six in all, included five Buddhists and their Muslim friend, Maruding Karim. A two-year-old infant, Jakrain, was among the dead. The murder of the baby terrified nearby residents and Pattani Islamic Council chairman Wadueramae Mamingji insisted the attack was against the teachings of Islam.[iv]
Mrs. Neelaphaijit furthermore complained about Bangkok’s major socio-economic projects in the far south, asserting the monies went to local leaders and did not fund “human resource development” programs.[v] This alludes to the supposition Bangkok has no real aid programs in the far south, but this is not the case. The government’s development efforts range from village level Civil Affairs (CA) projects – animal husbandry, irrigation, and the like – to larger business projects such as shrimp farming, seafood processing, and small industry.
While Mrs. Neelaphaijit is correct in many cases regarding development funding going to local leaders, the hidden fact is that many of these are TAOs, or Tambon Administrative Officials. TAOs are locally elected, many are Thai Malay Muslims – people Mrs. Neelaphaijit champions – and they control swaths of local funding ranging from utilities and construction projects to development aid. The heart of the problem in the south regarding aid money, CA projects, and administration is good governance, or lack thereof. Said Pattani Senator Anusart Suwanmongkol in 2009, “…60 to 70 percent of the budget is in the hands of local officials – but that is meaningless without good governance.”[vi]
As far as human resource development is concerned, Bangkok indeed has these programs throughout the far south. The Fourth Army, the military service in charge of security in this region, runs many of them. The SB-PAC does as well – the Southern Border Provincial Administration Command. It specializes in political, social, and economic operations. These include jobs programs for Thai Malay Muslims, many of them overseas working in oil and gas services. Multiple other government ministries and agencies have vocational training programs in the far south ranging from fish farming, to brick laying, to auto mechanics.
But the crux of human resource development begins at school where the youth of every country learn, among other things, how to be productive citizens. What Mrs. Neelaphaijit failed to discuss here was that southern Thailand’s Malay Muslim school system suffers from a significant lack of human resource development training. To be exact, most children and teenagers in this region attend private and unregistered Islamic schools called tadikas (for children) and pondoks (for teens.) Government registered private Islamic schools teach a mix of secular and Islamic subjects, but the purely private ones do not, or rarely do. Ultra conservative local leaders resist changing the pure Islamic schools into religious-secular hybrid systems.
Because of this, scores of southern border students grow up studying Islam in preschool and high school. When some of them attend college – their college attendance is low – scores again study Islam since this is what the ultra conservative slice of southern border society promotes as correct. As a result, these graduates are qualified to do one thing, and one thing only – teach Islam. They are not qualified to manage businesses, run banks, conduct surgery or serve as government administrators. Many of these people end up unemployed or in manual labor positions working for Thai Buddhists and Chinese who excel at a wide range business because they trained through the state’s school system. This in turn festers resentment, which becomes yet another reason to rebel against the state.
The bottom line is, if the ultra conservative Islamic segment of Thailand’s southern border population embraced Bangkok’s educational programs, the region would indeed be more developed. As long as secular education is rejected, the term “human resource development” will be a kind euphemism for paltry cash handouts to society’s unskilled laborers, and they will remain in poverty, dependent on fiscal scraps from the national budget. Islamist jihadists, however, will never embrace such programs.
So aside from Mrs. Neelaphaijit’s view, what are some of the other recent developments in the war? There are several. The Royal Thai Navy (RTN) scored the government’s biggest battlefield victory against the insurgents in February, some semblance of a peace process has developed, the Border Patrol Police (BPP) are highly active applying classic COIN techniques with some success, and the mayor of Yala is sponsoring multi-cultural events to prove Malays and Thai can live together in harmony as they once did.
The RTN Victory
Regarding the navy’s battlefield victory on 13 February, Royal Thai Marines (a branch of the RTN) and Navy SEALs ambushed and routed more than 60 insurgents that attempted a nighttime raid on a Marine base in Bacho, Narathiwat. The insurgents had laid intricate assault plans for a complex nighttime operation. They sported camouflage uniforms, assault vests, and some had attached flashlights to their assault rifles. The flex cuffs some of them carried indicate they were aiming to secure prisoners, possibly to use as leverage in up-and-coming peace talks. The insurgents even covertly inserted a forward attack element within 100 yards of the base hours before the assault began.[vii] They had indeed done their homework on the base, demonstrating their professionalism.
Thai authorities, however, had obtained detailed intelligence on the raid beforehand. One report has RTN forces killing a top insurgent who had the raid plans on his person. Another says insurgents had infiltrated the village next to the Marine base, and villagers informed on them. It could also have been a combination of these two scenarios, or neither. In Thailand, there are usually multiple explanations for such happenings, and back-stories abound as well.
Regardless, the RTN exploited intelligence quickly for use by direct action (DA) forces. Commanders quietly inserted Recon Marines and SEALs into the camp. These elite forces set up an ambush, and then patiently watched and waited. When they spotted the insurgents’ forward assault element low crawling into position at around 9 pm, they held their fire, exhibiting high discipline. They wanted the entire assault element to come into their kill zone, which they knew would happen a few hours later.
When the insurgents finally launched their assault, they ran into a hail of weapons fire as the Recon Marines and SEALs quickly established fire superiority. Within 20 minutes, they had killed 16 insurgents. Realizing their mistake, the insurgents broke off the attack, still under fire, and Thai government forces pursued them, following blood trails and tire tracks. They continued into the next day, checking medical clinics and hospitals for people with gunshot wounds.
Badly defeated, the insurgents were in dire need of flexing their muscles so as not to lose recruits and let morale slide, so they struck back quickly. They tried to bomb 50 civilian targets throughout the south but were only partially successful due to the amateurish placement of the devices. They did manage to firebomb several businesses in downtown Pattani and assassinate a few people, however.[viii]
The RTN’s victory suggests the government is following Sir Robert Thompson’s COIN adage (paraphrased): “Get in place that which is correct, and that which is sustainable, and play for the breaks.”[ix] Bangkok had an intelligence system up and in place to exploit insurgent missteps, it had DA assets plugged into the intelligence system ready for deployment, and it had the leadership and expertise to bring it all together and make it happen. And the RTG also caught a lucky break, an unspoken requirement in COIN.
Just after this failed attack, the RTG announced it had initiated formal peace talks with the insurgents.[x] Although successive administrations from Thaksin to Abhisit had initiated – or tried to initiate – some kind of negotiations, they all fizzled out. Part of this had to do with the fact that Bangkok was engaging former insurgent leaders of the 1980s-90s who were defeated in 1998 and had no influence over the current crop of much more fanatical fighters. So what is different about the current round of negotiations?
Current peace talks are more formal and public than those of the past. The head of the National Security Council (NSC), LT General Paradorn Pattanatabut, is spearheading this effort. He has the full confidence and support of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her support network.[xi] This is telling as previous peace talks – at least the ones that have been leaked to the press – appear to have been led by lower ranking personnel, seemingly less official, and even secret.
Critics assert current negotiations are a bad idea and will go nowhere because the lead insurgent negotiator, Hassan Taib, is not an active insurgent. His detractors say he is a retired Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN, National Revolutionary Front) rebel leader from decades past with some kind of influence over some groups on the ground, primarily the BRN-C. [xii] The BRN-C, “C” standing for “Coordinate,” is reportedly the most dominant group in southern Thailand. It appears to be fighting under an umbrella organization possibly called Dewan Pembabasan Pattani (DPP, Pattani Liberation Council.) The name Dewan Pimpinan Parti (Council of the Party Leadership) has also been cited as the lead umbrella group. In fact, many names have been used to denote a senior insurgent leadership council.
Taib’s detractors moreover claim the insurgents have no reason to negotiate. They believe they are winning. Moreover, the Islamist jihadist vein of the movement is, in principle, against negotiations of any kind. Some assert this vein is the movement’s core. Accordingly, Bangkok’s critics say the talks are not real, that they are a political stunt.
Then there is a whiff of Taib being the genuine article, one of the top insurgent leaders living in sanctuary in northern Malaysia who is indeed in charge of most operations on the ground in southern Thailand. The stunning defeat in Narathiwat, some suppose, was an added reason for the insurgency’s leadership to seek negotiations because their war was becoming too ambitious and getting nowhere.
Interestingly, senior Thai insiders do not deny any of these criticisms. They say present peace talks are indeed a fishing expedition, but a well crafted one. Thai officials say, “Why not go fishing? If we can jumpstart the political process to help assuage the fighting – even if only a few units turn in their weapons – then why not do it?”[xiii] This is the embodiment of one of the famous Chinese 36 strategies: “create something out of nothing.”
For sure, Bangkok has nothing to lose. If even a few insurgents surrender, it will be a success, an erosion of the current movement’s military capabilities and political clout. If, on the other hand, insurgents refuse to negotiate, or if they sabotage negotiations, Bangkok’s options regarding next steps will be clearer not only to the government, but also to the insurgents, Thailand’s neighbors, and to the world. In this latter case, security operations would likely increase because insurgents will have married themselves to war.
Nevertheless, so far, the insurgents have issued five main precursor demands at the peace talks:
1. Malaysia mediates the talks
2. The unconditional release of political prisoners
3. The recognition of BRN as the Patani Liberation Movement
4. The participation of ASEAN members in the talks
5. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and other non-governmental organizations witness the talks
The RTG is considering these, but it will not be easy going. Bangkok has seen what the OIC and Malaysia secured for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines - Mindanao as a form of undefined separate territory. MILF websites, however, insinuate this territory is a separate country. This is a psychological operation because legally and administratively this is not the case. The MILF’s theory is this propaganda will push illusion into reality for thousands of Mindanao Muslims and separate statehood will simply happen over time. If this does not happen, however, war might result due to MILF’s followers not getting what their leaders overpromised them. Bangkok does not want this to happen in southern Thailand. Accordingly, the RTG will be reluctant to allow the pro Islamic forces into the negotiations as it ideologically supports the insurgents. Still, if some in the Yingluck Administration come to believe they can manage a Muslim territory on their southern border they might acquiesce.
Another thorn in Bangkok’s side is the fact that Thai Malay Muslim insurgents continue to fight security forces and commit acts of terror against civilians. The government wants Taib to prove his power and sincerity by enforcing a ceasefire. The insurgents, on the other hand, might want to engage in a talk-fight scenario designed to wear down and frustrate the government. More, some units not tied to the BRN and BRN-C might increase the intensity of their operations in attempts to grab power and make the BRN-C look like little league.
Compounding the RTG’s skepticism is the continuing barrage of insurgent psyops by Taib himself. He recently asserted on YouTube the government is murdering civilians in the south as a matter of policy. This has angered many in the RTG.[xiv] Nevertheless, Bangkok will continue to push talks forward, seeking opportunities to reduce the scope of the conflict any way it can without sacrificing territorial integrity.
As of 1 July, however, things do not look good for peace talks. Don Pathon, a reporter for The Nation who specializes on the war in the south, asserted peace talks were likely doomed. He said the insurgents had made impossible demands on the government, such as stopping hunting for insurgents and granting diplomatic immunity to rebel negotiators.[xv] The latter is a political sleight of hand meant to de facto label the insurgent peace talk attendees as diplomats from a sovereign nation state. This and other recently demanded preconditions, such as removing all troops from the south, are perhaps too much for Bangkok. The situation remains highly fluid.
In other areas, Thai forces are applying classic COIN measures with good success. The actions of Sergeant Ban Saduak* of the 44th BPP in Yala[xvi] is one example. SGT Ban is short, stocky, middle aged, and looks like he could wrestle a water buffalo to the ground. His kind eyes go from welcoming to hard when he recalls the combat action he has experienced. But he loves his job and has been applying soft COIN measures – lots of CA operations – to his sector of Yala for years. And by the reduced violence there, SGT Ban and his unit seem to have done quite well.
His hands waving in short chops, SGT Ban explains the BPP as a police version of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces combined with Air Force Para Rescue. “Aside from border defense and rescue, our other mission is to conduct Civil Affairs and train remote villages in reconnaissance and self defense.” He says there are certain regions of Thailand that are so isolated that villagers have little connection to the government and outside civilization. The BPP helps keep them bonded to the nation and also co-opts certain villages into being its eyes and ears on the border, and sometimes its auxiliary defense.
SGT Ban had originally joined the police in the mid 1980s but thought it boring, so he joined the BPP. He grew up watching his older peers fight communist insurgents in the 1970s and early 80s and he wanted to join in. Since then, he has participated in missions all over Thailand, including protecting the king and queen and carrying out explosive ordnance disposal missions along the Cambodian border. There, he twice had “Bouncing Betty” mines spring up from the dirt before him, and twice they did not go off.
The thing he loves the most, however, is rescue. “When you help others,” he says, “you feel great.” And this is what excites him about the BPP. The mission is diverse. His eyes widen as he explains, “You jump from helicopters, you skydive, you assault, and you do everything to help rescue people from floods, disaster – even finding missing people on SAR [Search and Rescue] missions, so it’s not just law enforcement.”
He tells fascinating tales from his exploits in remote areas where inhabitants in many cases have never been to a city, never seen an airport, and never seen some common consumer goods. “In one village,” he chuckled, “we brought canned fish to villagers, and they were amazed and couldn’t figure how the fish got into the can!” In another village near Mae Sot (Northwest Thailand), the locals called him an angel. Why? “Well,” he says, “there was no rain in this particular area for a long time, and they needed rain for their crops to grow. And when I parachuted in, it rained shortly thereafter, and people said to me – ‘Hey! You’re an angel who brought the rain!’”
It is this mentality, the security/fighting mindset combined with a CA/rescue one, which makes SGT Ban and others like him in the BPP ideal for COIN. This is why the RTG put him and other BPP forces in Thailand’s far south as part of an upgraded southern COIN operation that began in 1980. These missions were overwhelmingly CA-like because insurgents at the time were a cross between criminal gangs and insurgents, and their operational tempo was low. Thailand’s current insurgency is more cohesive and has a very high operational tempo.
So in 2007, the RTG sent Ban’s unit, about 300 BPP troopers, to Bang Lang Dam in Yala; specifically, the Tambon Bacho, Bannang Sata district, along Highway 410. The dam is on the Pattani River. Insurgents in this area had killed multitudes of civilians, and they gave the army a run for its money as well, causing scores of dead and wounded. In January 2006, 10 insurgents ambushed an army foot patrol in a withering cascade of gunfire that lasted about 10 minutes. It ended when insurgents broke cover and beheaded one of those killed in the firefight, SGT Somjit Lorsaeng.[xvii] There had also been clashes between insurgent-sympathetic civilians and local forces that resulted in the former being shot. SGT Ban’s mission was to win the village at Bang Lang Dam for the government and arm it so it could keep the insurgents out.
“See, the regular army is not good at Civil Affairs and COIN,” SGT Ban explains. “They’re not trained for it. They have no relationship building skills needed to reach the population. But the BPP does. It’s one of our specialties. So they sent us in to fix things.”
He says it is not simply about waltzing into a “red” village – insurgent sympathetic – and striking up a conversation. (Villages are coded, red, yellow, or green/white. The latter means an area is “clean,” or insurgent-free.) “We put a lot of effort into it before we make contact,” he says. “You do a reconnaissance, you secure intelligence. You must know what place is ok to go into well before contact is made.” Intelligence, he says, comes from the police and military, depending on which one is running that particular sector.
“But simply having intelligence isn’t enough to go in, either,” SGT Ban says. “When you get intelligence, you can’t always trust it 100 percent. You have to test it. But this is tricky. When you go to touch, to feel, to taste – to take a risk – it can kill you,” he says with a serious gaze. “But you still do it.”
SGT Ban says this means BPP forces patrol around a village they would like to engage and slowly make brief contact - and then see what they can build on. If they come into contact with the enemy they have an area security problem to deal with before CA and relationship building can proceed in earnest. If not they still keep security tight, but the focus is on relationships. “To do this, you have to be yourself, be sincere, be respectful, and truly aim to fix their problems,” SGT Ban says.
He further explains, “We say, if you give ten, you get ten back.” This refers to the traditional Thai form of greeting, the wai, which is performed by clasping the hands in front of the face or heart as if in prayer and nodding slightly. Since it is both hands – all 10 digits – you are “giving ten,” and hopefully, you will receive the same in return.
“You have to prove you are there to help them,” SGT Ban says. “Eye contact is very important. You have to press your feelings toward them with your eyes. They will know you are lying and not true if you don’t feel it.”
He says if you can secure one village you can branch out and engage others. Classic COIN theorists call this the “ink blot strategy.” The Thai call it “spreading the carpet.” SGT Ban also admonishes, however, you cannot just leave a village after it has agreed to work with the government. Otherwise, the inhabitants will feel abandoned and might drop out of the government’s orbit again.
Aside from being engulfed in violence, the village at Bang Lang Dam was in terrible socio-economic shape. Says SGT Ban, wincing, “They didn’t have a lot of rice, they had scores of medical problems, and they had no medicine. Many people were dying.” So he and his BPP force applied their methods, accessed the village, and after many visits the residents began to feel SGT Ban’s unit was sincere and allowed them into their lives.
“We gained the village leaders’ trust by saving their families, literally,” SGT Ban says. “For example, a swath of children became very sick from disease-carrying mosquitoes. I’m not sure what you call it in English,” he says, looking up. “We say, ‘chi kun kul ya.’ Anyway, it causes fever, sore joints, pain, dizziness, a lack of energy, and loss of appetite. It’s nasty. So we provided medicine, rubbed the kids with a fever reducing topical solution, and generally nursed them back to health. One of the top village leaders, when he saw us doing these things, cried. No one had ever helped them like this before.”
This led to the village deepening its relationship with the government and standing up an armed village protection team to insure the insurgents did not harass and/or try to take over the village. SGT Ban and his team trained the protection team in small unit tactics and armed them with shotguns.
But it goes beyond CA and security, says SGT Ban. “The villagers will fight and argue over money, leadership, administration, and local governing issues. We have to mediate and help solve these problems because they can weaken a village and allow insurgents back in. So you have to master local politics - and psychology,” he adds upon reflection.
SGT Ban and his BPP team have made the village at Bang Lang dam safe for the most part. The violence of the past and insurgent access to the village dropped off so much many consider it a Thai COIN success story. But insurgents still attack the area on rare occasions. On 13 February 2012, they set off a roadside IED wounding 10 paramilitary Rangers who were patrolling near the dam.[xviii]
Yala’s Buddhist-Muslim Cultural Festival
In early March, the town of Yala in Yala province, one of the largest cities in the far south, sponsored the “Good Food, Clean Taste” festival, sort of a “taste of the far south” event that lasted three full days and culminated with a major concert by multiple dance and musical acts well known throughout Thailand. These included both Thai and Malay acts. Anyone in attendance could see the mixed crowd of Buddhists and Muslims were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Pongsak Yingchoncharoen, Mayor of Yala, is a serious-looking man with chiseled facial features and jet-black hair. He commanded a VIP table at the final night of the festival and explained his current situation. No normal mayor, aside from running day-to-day economic and administrative affairs, he also has to contend with insurgent attempts to bomb, raid, and assassinate in his city. Prior to 2008 they hit Yala often, but Mayor Pongsak helped changed that.
“I have security everywhere,” he says.[xix] “I have to. It’s not a normal place, but we are improving things, as you can see.” He smiled. A stream of both uniformed and plain clothes security personnel came and went from his entourage, and now and then, one would whisper to him about some issue. He would give short instructions, and off the man would go to take care of whatever needed to be taken care of.
“This is the 13th time we’ve had this festival in Yala,” he noted proudly. “It’s an all day affair for three full days, and restaurants and vendors from all over the far south come here to put out their best food.” He surveyed the crowd. “As you can see, we have Malay Muslims and Thai Buddhists here, all together, enjoying the food and entertainment.”
There were more than two thousand people there of all ages, genders and ethnicities. And there was a constant stream of people tricking in. Faces everywhere were lit up with excitement against the colored lights and dazzling performances. Anyone could see these people did not hate each other.
“The crowd tonight will reach over ten thousand, most likely,” said the Mayor. “And this shows we can all live together in peace. Like it used to be.”
He explains the festival is not just to have a good time. It is, in part, a social-political initiative designed to demonstrate that people of the region have much in common and can live in peace. “We call this ‘social harmonization,’” he said, as if lecturing to a college sociology class. “It’s designed to bring the community together, even in the midst of an insurgency, and just celebrate the diversity of this unique part of Thailand.” He gestured to his security personnel - “And it’s designed to push the insurgents out for a time, to show them and the people we can indeed provide a safe venue for harmonization.”
This was no easy task. It required a phalanx of security forces. Mayor Pongsak had at his disposal volunteer defense units, the regular police, civic security volunteers, the BPP, and SGT Ban’s elite Long Range Surveillance Unit that the sergeant handpicked and trained. Fully geared up with body armor, chest pouches full of M4 magazines, pistols slung low in holsters on their hips, they were ready for anything. And anything could happen. Events like these the world over are the exact kind insurgents and terrorists like to attack. Even a grenade thrown over a wall into the crowd would have suited their disruptive goals.
But not this night. Mayor Pongsak and his team had the venue well secured. But he did not take the security for granted. He has seen the region ebb and flow in and out of violence and he knew the consequences of slacking off. Moreover, the insurgents would love to kill this man.
“I was born in Yala in 1963,” he said proudly. “I’m a southerner. This is my home, and these Thai, Chinese, and Malays are my neighbors, my countrymen.” Mayor Pongsak is dedicated to running a prosperous town for all ethnicities and religions, and he is determined to keep it safe.
“Yala is one of the most successful and prosperous cities in the far south,” he said, nodding his head, eyebrows raised. “We are growing, moving up.” The town is clean – lovely, in fact. It sports schools, bustling traffic, and street after street of vendors and lively businesses. “Yala’s economy is better than Pattani’s and Narathiwat’s,” says Mayor Pongsak. We have a Muslim symphony. We have an excellent university – Yala Rajabhat University. Things are happening. People are beginning to understand.”
Mayor Pongsak admitted, however, the insurgents will attempt to stifle him and the government at every turn. “We had a car bomb a few weeks ago and yesterday there was a motorcycle bomb nearby that hit two soldiers.” Then he turned back to the diverse crowd of Muslims and Buddhists, all eating together and watching the lively stage. “But you see this, and there is hope for the far south.”
He is right. Anyone at this large and ethnically and religiously mixed celebration could see it. Peace and harmony in Thailand’s far south is possible. More work needs to be done to secure it, however, and the insurgents get a vote too. In fact, the night after the, “Good Food, Clean Taste” festival, insurgents set harassing bonfires on roads in nearly every district in Yala, just to let the Mayor and the town know, “You kept us out and had your little party. But we’re here, watching and waiting for an opportunity to strike again.” And they will.
So, in the midst of the odious allegations by Mrs. Neelaphaijit and BRN leader Mr. Taib, Thailand carries on, pushing ever forward to quell the insurgency. Contrary to popular criticism, the RTG does have clever and effective programs and it does have dedicated personnel such as SGT Ban and Mayor Pongsak. But this is not enough. These men and their programs are not coordinated and widespread enough throughout the far south to make a difference for the whole region. And there are other problems as well.
First, the government is embroiled in a seemingly never-ending battle with itself. Picture the current wrangling between Republicans and Democrats in Washington and all the scandals and gridlock found there multiplied by 50. The Yingluck administration, with former PM Thaksin influencing from the shadows, is doing political battle over the future of the country as scores of sub parties abound that support the various political factions – the Red Shirts, the Yellow Shirts, and now, the White Masks. Street protests, threats of riots and violence, and legal charges against key politicians keep the government from focusing on its most pressing domestic threat since the Communist Party of Thailand waged a 20-year war to turn the country into a Maoist state. Bangkok’s eye is not on the ball.
Second, although the RTG has made major improvements in its southern COIN efforts since 2006, it could do much more to increase its legitimacy in the eyes of southerners. It could begin by nationally embracing Malay culture through resolutions in Parliament. It could take cultural initiatives to co-opt Malays into the national orbit such as taking Yala’s “Good Food, Clean Taste” festival concept countrywide. The government could have a national Thai Malay Muslim History Month. It could set up and broadly promote a Malay history museum in Bangkok – anything to make Malays feel more a part of the state and appreciated. None of these would be decisive measures. Cultural COIN actions rarely are. They are more evolutionary in nature but, nonetheless, critical to buttress decisive political and security actions and reduce the effectiveness of the insurgents’ fundamental messaging: “They hate us because we are culturally different.”
Third, the RTG needs to increase COIN training and the quality of all its forces in the south, including critical local forces, so that they all understand and adopt the role of the “strategic corporal[xx].” This would decrease occasional atrocities that mar the government’s otherwise good track record (a track record that needs to be “superior” in order to win.) It would also allow regular Thai forces to engage highly motivated and skilled insurgents instead of having to bring in elite Navy SEALs and Recon Marines to do their jobs for them. Without effective security, politics and economics government legitimacy mean nothing.
Fourth, there needs to be justice applied by the RTG against those who commit atrocities. Even if one rape by government forces occurs a year, it is too much. The RTG must realize the quality of its troops and their actions is directly related to how much legitimacy it has with the southern population. It must also realize quality of troops is directly tied to leadership and training. Additionally, a trial or two of bad apples in the security services would go a long way to undercut insurgent and insurgent-sympathetic voices by various NGOs.
Fifth, if the RTG is going to carry out point four, it needs to more aggressively hold the insurgents and its supporters to even higher standards. Thailand’s southern insurgents target civilians as a matter of policy, which makes them terrorists as well as insurgents. Their recent, highly publicized words say they want a “Patani” for all races, colors, and creeds, but their racist and Islamist indoctrination, propaganda, and death raids against Buddhist villages and prolific murdering of Buddhist monks proves otherwise. Their guidebook, “Fight for the Liberation of Pattani,” and their propaganda tout kicking out all non-Muslims from the far south as part of an Islamist, Pattani-focused jihad. Those who stay must “submit” to sharia (syariat) law. This book is riddled with calls to free the far south via jihad – here meaning war – against the nonbelievers (kafir) and Muslim “hypocrites” (munafik). It is replete with the terms/phrases, “anger,” “vengeance,” fighters becoming “jihad warriors,” and Koranic excuses for killing enemies of God and Mohammad, specifically Al-Anfal (8:60), commonly used by al Qaeda.[xxi] All these ideological tenets promote ethnic cleansing.
Moreover, the insurgents excommunicate and then murder Muslims who do not agree with their brand of Islam, which makes them takfir. Takfir is the guiding creed of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and like movements, and this is against Islam. Yet the RTG seizes upon and exploits none of this. But it should. These are the actions, deeds, and ideology of the insurgents and their sympathizers. The government should make them own it through continual local, national, and international information operations.
Interestingly, Mrs. Neelaphaijit has on occasion identified points where Bangkok could improve its standing with southerners. She correctly points out many locals have lost faith in the Thai justice system that reigns over the south. “A society that lacks justice will never achieve peace,” she says.[xxii] She moreover appropriately states, “Thai society is in dire need of police, military and justice reforms.”[xxiii] She says there are structural problems throughout the Thai system, and she is right.[xxiv] But is the answer simply to verbally pound the RTG and ignore the takfiri insurgency? It is true that the onus is on Bangkok to institute legitimacy and implement improvements, but there is plenty of blame to go around.
Regarding this latter point, Mrs. Neelaphaijit and Taib could do more, too. Neither gave “peace now” and anti-takfir speeches at Yala’s “Good Food, Clean Taste” celebration in Yala. Neither has lambasted the insurgents in pro-peace talk press conferences for their racist, Islamist jihadi philosophy contained in “Fight for the Liberation of Pattani.” And neither has gone to Bag Lang to help SGT Ban and the BPP heal sick villagers. What a major step forward toward reconciliation it would have been if Mrs. Neelaphaijit and Mr. Taib had joined in these efforts.
But they did not. And Thailand’s war rolls on.
[i] “Rape victims in deep South silenced by state payouts: Angkhana,” The Nation, 26 May 2013, http://www.nationmultimedia.com/national/Rape-victims-in-deep-South-silenced-by-state-payou-30206907.html.
[ii] “Rape victims in deep South silenced by state payouts: Angkhana.”
[iii] “Ex-soldier killed at home in front of Muslim wife,” The Nation, 23 May 2005.
[iv] “Toddler among six massacred in Pattani,” Khabar, 3 May 2013, http://khabarsoutheastasia.com/en_GB/articles/apwi/articles/features/2013/05/03/feature-02.
[v] “Rape victims in deep South silenced by state payouts: Angkhana.”
[vi] “A wake-up call for Bangkok,” The Malay Insider, 22 June 2009, http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/index.php/world/29945-a-wake-up-call-to-bangkok-.
[vii] “South on alert after deadly marine ambush,” The Nation, 14 February 2013, and “Thai military base attack leaves 16 gunmen dead,”AFP, 13 February 2013.
[viii] “Muslim insurgents launch 50 attacks in Thailand's deep south,” The Telegraph, 18 February 2013.
[ix] Thomas A. Marks, Sebastian L.v. Gorka, and Robert Sharp, “Getting the Next War Right: Beyond Population-centric Warfare,” Prism 3 No. 4, NDU Press, September 2012, http://www.ndu.edu/press/getting-next-war-right.html.
[x] “16 rebels shot dead in failed raid on Thai army base,” The Independent, 14 February 2013.
[xi] “Thailand PM may seek Malaysian role in peace process during visit,” BBC, 23 February 2013.
[xii] “Halt to bombings on the agenda,” The Nation, 9 March 2013, and “Some 20 insurgents set to give in under scheme,” The Nation, 7 March 2013, and “Doubts over BRN chief's control of South rebels,” The Nation, 1 March 2013.
[xiii] Interview by author, comments provided by anonymous Thai official, March 2013.
[xiv] “South Thailand Conflict: Ceasefire terms in 10 days,” Malaysian Digest, 15 June 2013, http://malaysiandigest.com/news/36-local2/371502-south-thailand-conflict-ceasefire-terms-in-10-days.html, and “BRN demands 'drawing scant support',” Bangkok Post, 13 June 2013, and “Patience 'wearing thin' in BRN talks,” Bangkok Post, 13 June 2013, and “Sukumpol blasts BRN chiefs, calls them liars,” Bangkok Post, 30 May 2013.
[xv] “Thai peace talks brokered by M’sia hit a dead end,” The Nation, 1 July 2013.
[xvi] Interview by author, SGT Ban Saduak, Yala, Thailand, 44th BPP camp, 3 March 2013.* (His name has been changed to protect the interviewee.)
[xvii] “Chidchai sure of keeping unrest in check, security operations to be more pro-active,” Bangkok Post, 3 January 2006, and “Soldiers head retrieved,” The Nation, 4 January 2006.
[xviii] “10 rangers wounded by bomb in Yala,” Bangkok Post, 13 February 2012.
[xix] Interview by author, Pongsak Yingchoncharoen, Yala, Thailand, 4 March 2013.
[xx] The “Three Block War” is a concept that illustrates the complex spectrum of challenges likely to be faced by individual military personnel at the tactical level on the modern battlefield.
[xxi] “The Fight for the Liberation of Pattani,” in Conflict and Terrorism in Southern Thailand, ed Rohan Gunanratna et al, (Singapore, Marshall Canvendesh, 2005), 118-125, 139, 142.
[xxii] “Rape victims in deep South silenced by state payouts: Angkhana.”
[xxiii] “Rape victims in deep South silenced by state payouts: Angkhana.”
[xxiv] “Rape victims in deep South silenced by state payouts: Angkhana.”