In 2023, expect more violence in Thailand’s insurgency-hit Deep South

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
In 2023, expect more violence in Thailand’s insurgency-hit Deep South Police officials and rescue workers inspect damage after a truck bomb exploded outside a building housing police officers and their families in Muang, a district of southern Thailand’s Narathiwat province, Nov. 22, 2022. One person died and more than two dozen were injured in the attack, the provincial governor said.
Madaree Tohlala/AFP

The separatist insurgency in the mainly Malay Muslim provinces of Thailand’s southern border region just entered its 20th year. 

Violence in the Deep South inched upwards in 2022, a sign that frustration may be growing on the rebel side with the government’s lip service to the peace process.

Overall, violence rose last year but remained quite low by historical standards, according to an open-source data set kept by this author. The numbers are conservative in that not every attack or incident of violence was reported in the media.

In all, about 30 people – not including insurgents were killed and 123 others were wounded in violence in the Deep South last year. Although that represented an increase in casualties, these numbers are a blip compared with a decade ago, when more than 10 times the number of people were killed and six times the number were wounded.

In 2022, a total of 29 people were killed an average of 2.5 a month well below the monthly average of four over the past five years. However, the number of injured people, 123, represented a 156% increase over 2021.

Among the dead, 38% were members of the security forces. They also made up 68% of the people injured in regional violence in 2022. 

In short, security forces remain the primary target. But when compared with civilians, they have better protection, body armor, and are equipped with life-saving medical equipment. 

The number of attacks involving homemade bombs rose sharply.

There were 69 IED attacks in 2022, an average of 5.75 a month. In contrast, there were only 33 and 19 IED attacks in 2020 and 2021, respectively. 

In 2022, bomb-squad personnel defused six improvised explosive devices. There were also six grenade attacks.

In addition, there were 17 targeted killings during the year an average of 1.42 a month below the five-year average of 2.45 a month. People deliberately targeted in such attacks could be a member of the security forces riding a motorcycle with his family, an informant, or a critic of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the most powerful of the armed insurgent groups in the Deep South. 

Other violence included 11 arson attacks, and eight attacks on cellular and electricity towers. There were some 11 separate attacks on the railways, including a Dec. 3 bombing that derailed 11 of 20 freight cars.

That was followed by a bomb the next day that targeted first responders. On Aug. 17, insurgents detonated 17 small bombs. They mostly targeted 7-11 convenience stores simultaneously and caused three casualties.

There were a few bold attacks, including a 10-man assault on the maritime police and customs facility in Tak Bai in May, that left three officers wounded. Overall, though, the number of attacks on hardened security force posts fell to 5. There were only 11 prolonged firefights between security forces and insurgents, another indicator of the latter’s limited resources.

It was a rough year for the insurgents. 

In addition to killing 18 suspected rebels, security forces arrested 11 suspects. In all, security forces have killed more than 60 suspected rebels since the BRN declared a unilateral ceasefire in May 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, an unsustainable rate of loss.

The peace process

Meanwhile several rounds of peace talks, both virtual and in-person, were held in 2022. 

Although the BRN appeared to have made two major concessions in agreeing to negotiate under the framework of Thailand’s constitution and accepting the principle of the unitary Thai state, there were no breakthroughs.

At a meeting in March, the two sides agreed to a Ramadan ceasefire as a sign of good will.

In return, the Thai government made an unprecedented gesture when the Internal Security Operations Command announced that rebels could safely return home for Ramadan, in an initiative called Masjids San Jai Soo Santi (To Mosques for Peace). As such, the ceasefire actually held longer than the negotiated 40 days.

The sixth round of talks, scheduled for October, was postponed due to the Malaysian elections. But in December, the two sides drew up a draft agreement that would provide for a ceasefire and lift arrest warrants for the BRN negotiators.

Yet a ceasefire seems unlikely. The year 2022 saw an increase in violence perpetrated by the Patani United Liberation Organization, a rival to the BRN.

PULO staged a few attacks, including a double bombing in April during the BRN’s Ramadan ceasefire. Though a much smaller organization with fewer military capabilities, PULO is trying to leverage a seat at the negotiating table. 

In January 2023, Anwar Ibrahim, the new Malaysian prime minister who has a personal interest in the situation in southern Thailand, picked the former military chief, Gen. Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, as the new facilitator for the Malaysia-brokered peace process. 

Zulkifli replaces former police chief Abdul Rahim Noor, who was tied to the beating of Anwar, when the latter was incarcerated in 1998. But as a Malaysian analyst put it, the Special Branch has largely muscled the Army out of southern Thai affairs. 

Thailand continues to worry about the internationalization of the conflict, and remains somewhat suspicious of Malaysian facilitation efforts. In January 2022, Kuala Lumpur tried to build up trust by handing over three suspected BRN militants to Thai authorities, the first handover since 1997.

While Malaysians see the appointment of Zulkifli as something to inject new life into the peace process, it’s very hard to see any momentum as Thailand heads to elections, currently planned for May. 

Any new government will only be able to move within the parameters set by the Army leadership. The Army has gotten violence to a low enough level that they can attribute it to criminality, without making any meaningful concessions or addressing any of the BRN’s core grievances. 

The government’s strategy appears to be using protracted peace talks to cause rifts amongst the rebels.

The frustration on the part of Barisan Revolusi Nasional appears to be mounting, which explains the rise in violence. It’s also not clear whether BRN fighters in the field have endorsed the concessions made by the leadership.

As such, violence looks set to climb even more in 2023.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


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