Thai Deep South: ‘Bring People Home,’ a PR Exercise or Effective Tool Against Insurgency?

Commentary by Don Pathan
Yala, Thailand
170301-TH-pathan-620.jpg Thai army Lt. Gen. Piyawat Nakwanich takes alleged insurgent Ahama Duere toward an awaiting military helicopter in Yala province, Feb. 24, 2017.
Courtesy of ISOC4

Surrounded by reporters and television crews, the senior-most military commander tasked with quelling the insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South flew in on his helicopter last week to meet a rebel who, after eight years of on the run, decided to surrender in exchange for leniency from the law.

For a suspect with at least four warrants out for his arrest, Ahama Duere was calm and collected when he met Lt. Gen. Piyawat Nakwanit. Piyawat’s subordinates and press crews treated Ahama kindly and smiled as they walked with him to an awaiting helicopter.

Ahama was not handcuffed. As far as anyone knew, he could have been any of the reporters accompanying the commander of the Fourth Army Area on a field trip.

The targeted audiences were insurgents contemplating whether to give up their armed struggle and surrender and, of course, their parents whom local authorities have urged to talk their sons into turning themselves in through the “Bring People Home Project.”

Separatism as an ideology among the Malay population in the historically contested Deep South runs deep, thus making virtually all Malay Muslim men here suspects or sympathizers in the eyes of authorities.

Often, roadside bombs targeting military and police patrols are buried within the eyesight of residents. This speaks volumes about the relationship between the villagers and the combatants.

Nevertheless, the Thai government calls the project a success but offers no meaningful justification to support that claim. Every now and then, authorities put together a boot-stomping public ceremony where former combatants and authorities get together in a show of force and unity with hugs and handshakes in front of the media and villagers.

But in remote villages, insurgents keep operating freely mainly because villagers continue to support them. They take turns making food for insurgents and sometimes providing them with shelter if their unit has been moved from another area for whatever reason.

Improved government intelligence over the years meant cell members had to relocate, even to another province. Sometimes this meant moving far from their families and loved ones. Such a move has brought hardship for many, as Ahama claimed.

The decision to quit a combatant’s life and return to civilian life is not a difficult one, but requires taking a chance with Thai authorities. Such a decision does not constitute desertion as long as the cell leaders and the individual wanting to leave reach an understanding followed by an oath that they would not reveal the identity of their fellow comrades who are still active.

Possible retaliation

Violating this oath could lead to deadly retaliation.

For the Thai side, the challenge is to strike a balance between cashing in on the publicity around an insurgent’s surrender and squeezing him for more intelligence. For those insurgents who turn themselves in, the aim is not to provide too much, at least not to the point that it could come back and haunt them.

Active combatants, on the other hand, are indifferent to the public relations exercise behind the Bring People Home Project, saying they are fully aware that the Thais are controlling the narrative.

What matters to them is that they continue to capture the imagination and trust of the local Malay Muslim residents whose grievances and mistrust of the Thai state provided them with the legitimacy to carry on with their struggle for a separate homeland.

How the narrative of the conflict evolves will depend on the main rebel group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), which controls virtually all of the combatants on the ground.

For the time being, combatants said they do not consider the go-between – be it government officials or local civil society organizations working for security forces to persuade the insurgents to surrender – a target or a threat to the movement.

Somebody's blacklist

Locals here think everybody is on somebody’s blacklist, rendering it somewhat meaningless. But from the perspective of a parent, it is an opportunity to remove his or her son from such a list that could very well mean death. Nearly 7,000 have been killed, mostly ethnic Malays, from insurgency-related violence since January 2004.

Moreover, BRN cadres said they are not too worried about combatants wanting to quit because the movement does not need that many people, not at this stage of the struggle anyway. In this kind of “unconventional warfare,” what matters is that the movement can demonstrate that it can still be a threat to the state security apparatus.

Keen observers of the conflict and local Malay Muslim residents of this region don’t buy the official line. So this begs the question: what is the purpose of this ongoing public relations offensive?

Senior policy makers said the idea behind Bring People Home and the so-called peace dialogue with MARA Patani – an umbrella organization of long-standing separatist groups who no longer control combatants on the ground – is all part of a long-term strategy that rests on the hope that villagers will become tired of the violence and turn their backs on the BRN and their combatants.

Like other peace initiatives, the strategy is more like a big leap of faith. Few policy planners take the time to look back into history and ask what went wrong in the relationship between the state and its Malay minority and why, nearly half a century after the region came under direct rule of the state, an armed insurgency erupted and shattered the comfort level between the two sides.

Don Pathan is a consultant and security analyst based in Thailand. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.


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