Authorities in Thailand’s Deep South undertook a rare move by charging two troops with murder in the killings of three unarmed woodcutters, and conceding that soldiers mistook the civilians for insurgents hiding out atop a mountain in Narathiwat province.
It’s not very often that the Thai army admits to committing mistakes with deadly consequences in its counter-insurgency operations in the far south. But in the wake of the Dec. 16 killings, the military came out with a different kind of message.
When extrajudicial killings took place in the past under questionable circumstances, authorities would opt to buy more time and tell the public the case was under investigation.
Past practices also showed that militants from the National Revolutionary Front (BRN), the main southern separatist rebel group National Revolutionary Front (BRN), would retaliate – and often ferociously – when they deemed that “ground rules” in the conflict had been violated.
The BRN would go beyond the usual roadside bombings often followed by a brief gunfight with government forces, by carrying out coordinated and organized attacks as a form of retaliation.
Like in all insurgencies, violence is a form of communicative action.
In the context of Thailand’s Deep South, the communication over the past 15 years has been between militant separatists under the leadership of BRN and the Thai security forces, made up of police, soldiers and paramilitaries.
As the BRN sees it, armed civilians including village chiefs and defense volunteers – all of whom fall under the Ministry of Interior’s chain of command – are legitimate targets when they cross a red line by becoming part of the government’s security apparatus, and/or spying for the state.
The killings of 15 mostly armed village officials in Yala province during a twin attack by suspected insurgents on two security posts in early November was a case in point.
But the Dec. 16 incident on a mountain top in Narathiwat that resulted in the deaths of three young men begged the question: why has the BRN so far not retaliated this time around?
“The mood on the ground calls for retaliation but it appears that the BRN is showing restraint. The Thai army, on the other hand, is reciprocating the BRN’s restraint by taking a moral high ground on this incident,” said Asmadee Bueheng, the communications director from The Patani, a political action group that closely monitors the conflict and advocates for the right to self-determination for local Malay Muslims.
Artef Sohko, a prominent political activist in the region who chairs The Patani, said: “The villagers have made some progress with the authorities, and the BRN may not want to carry out retaliation for fear that it could jeopardize whatever agreement the state agencies and the relatives have achieved.”
At first, the initial report from the military unit to the regional commander, Lt. Gen. Pornsak Poolsawat, said the soldiers came across a group of loggers in a restricted area and instructed them to identify themselves and be subjected to a search.
Around the same time, three to four gunshots were heard in the immediate area and the woodcutters ran.
Some of the woodcutters who fled the scene but survived the shooting are keeping quiet and not talking to reporters. It was not clear if they had reached a deal with the authorities, or they worried for their own safety or did not want to complicate the matter while the two sides negotiate a settlement.
Asmadee said authorities could have clung to their narrative because they were no witnesses, except for loggers who fled the scene and lived.
But they didn’t.
Instead, Thai Army Chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong expressed regrets over the deaths of the three young men and vowed to take legal and disciplinary actions. He suggested that the security forces needed to improve their understanding of the rules of engagement.
Moreover, Lt. Gen. Pornsak no longer lends credence to the initial report about a possible gunfight at the scene of the deadly shootings on the mountain.
Observers said the army chief was trying to win the hearts and minds of the local people who had overwhelmingly voted for the opposition parties at the last General Election, in March 2019. Compared with other regions, Thailand’s Malay-speaking South had the highest voter turnout.
In some ways, faith in Thailand’s parliamentary politics was somewhat restored. But the fact that a majority of locals voted for the opposition who had campaigned on an anti-military platform means the current administration is resting on shaky ground.
Expressing regret and vowing to take legal action against soldiers who allegedly took part in killing the loggers will not be a game-changer for the conflict in the far south. But, nevertheless, it is the correct path to take if Thailand is to succeed in winning hearts and minds of the local Malays.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.