Separatist insurgents recently hijacked a double-decker tour bus and set it on fire in Thailand’s Deep South, after escorting the passengers off.
The incident jolted security officials in the region, where the military had boasted about winning hearts and minds of the predominantly Malay Muslim population.
The military claimed as well that hundreds, and possibly thousands, of militants were itching to put down their arms through a government amnesty program known as Bring People Home.
The attack in December irked policy makers in Bangkok. It also exposed questions about security along the only road linking Yala – one of the three conflict-ridden provinces in the south – to Betong, an important border town where an international airport is being built.
Initial reactions to the attack were mixed. Lt. Gen. Piyawat Nakwanich, the army’s regional commander, at first suggested a crime syndicate may have been behind the attack.
But as the investigation unfolded and as more militant sources began to speak, the attack appeared to be part of the separatists’ strategy to undermine the security apparatus. It was, indeed, a stern statement to the Thai government that this road was not safe to travel.
To demonstrate they are not a bunch of misguided fanatics bent on racking up body counts, the militants in this case did not harm the passengers on the bus. The rebels stopped in-coming traffic so the passengers could cross the road, and they also helped older ones with their luggage.
It was their way of showing they respect certain boundaries, even though there are no written rules of engagement for the two warring sides.
The army responded to the arson attack two weeks later by carrying out a mop-up operation in Bunnang Sata district and nearby villages. By the time the operation ended, authorities rounded up 50 suspects.
Authorities said detainees provided valuable information. Relatives of the arrested huddled in front of holding centers, where their sons and husbands were locked up under martial law that permits detention without legal representation. With no access to the detainees, it was understandable that relatives feared the worse as many of those in custody had already been released.
Local and international human rights organizations have documented allegations of torture and abuse of detainees. But the authorities often dismiss such allegations without investigation, and the army has even threatened legal action against accusers.
Not all of the military personnel in the region agreed with the January mop-up operation. Some argued it would undermine the overall counter-insurgency effort aimed at winning support from Malay Muslims who make up more than 80 percent of the two million residents in the Deep South.
They were concerned that a blind sweep could be perceived by the militants as going overboard, and could provoke retaliation.
Their fears were realized on Jan. 22. An insurgent cell in Yala set off a vicious motorbike bomb at a market in Yala, killing three civilians, including an Islamic religious student.
The message to the Thai side was loud and clear: Your action has deadly consequences. In the end, a perceived violation by the army was answered with another violation by the rebels.
For observers of the conflict, the friendly conduct of the militants behind the bus attack and angry cell members behind the motorbike bomb seem to be a world apart. If anything, it reflected diverse views among the militants on the ground.
“It seems that some militants have no qualms about pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable, while others believe humanitarian principles have to be respected,” said Artef Sohko, a political activist from The Patani, a civil society organization that promotes the right to self-determination for the people of this historically contested region.
While collateral damage does happen in this conflict and both sides can be blamed for these violations, it is very rare for militant cells to single out soft targets.
The last time a soft target was singled out for attack in the far south was on Oct. 24, 2016, when a bomb went off at a nighttime food hawking area in the heart of Pattani, killing one person and injuring 18 other people.
That was retaliation against the rounding up of more than 100 Patani Malay youths and students living in Bangkok, some of whom claimed to have been beaten, militant sources said.
Since there are no written rules of engagement, it’s pretty much up to the two warring sides to decide where to draw a red line. What is clear is that retaliatory attacks against perceived violations have been deadly.
Insurgents dictate pace of violence
But it hasn’t stopped the Thai security forces from pushing the line with their operations in the field, not to mention other forms of harassment that push the residents even further from reconciling with the state.
Moreover, with no pressure to explain their conduct because policy makers and security planners in Bangkok have more important issues to attend to, the regional army command is left alone to construct its own narrative.
The military paints itself as morally superior to the insurgents because government officials are not behind the violence. It believes that the more insurgents resort to violence, the more they distance themselves from the community.
Officials often pointed to a steady drop in the number of violent acts in the Deep South since 2007, but separatist sources said the decision to reduce those incidents was theirs to make. In other words, the militants have been told to make their hits count, which mean greater intensity with each and every attack.
This is not to say that the military does not deserve any credit for bringing down the number of violent incidents. The decision to post paramilitary rangers in remote areas helped expand the security grid and improve response times.
Meanwhile, the movement has shown that militants can hit any place at any time, and even against targets outside of the traditional theater of violence. In their view, as long as the movement exists, the government can never claim victory.
Until someone can bring the two sides to reach an agreement the rules of engagement and tit-and-tat violence will go on with no end in sight.
Don Pathan is independent security analyst and a founding member of Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com), a civil society organization dedicated to critical discussion on the conflict in Thailand’s southernmost provinces.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.