Video of Insurgents’ Final Hours Strikes Chord in Thai Deep South

Commentary by Don Pathan
Krong Pinang, Yala, Thailand
2021-05-14
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Video of Insurgents’ Final Hours Strikes Chord in Thai Deep South In this photo taken on May 7, 2021, bullet holes pock a house in Krong Pinang, a village in southern Thailand’s Yala province, where two insurgents spent the last hours of their lives before being killed during a standoff with government forces three days earlier.
Don Pathan/BenarNews

Time was running out for the two separatist fighters – and they knew it.

Bullet holes riddled the corrugated metal wall of the house where they hunkered down during their final hours.

Dozens of Thai government security personnel surrounded it – and the men inside had already shot dead 27-year-old Nopparit Sukson, a paramilitary ranger from northern Thailand. His body lay meters away on a forested slope at the edge of Krong Pinang, a village in Yala, a province in Thailand’s troubled Deep South.

An imam had been called in to persuade the combatants to surrender; a third man had already done so. Soon after, a military press release would quote him as saying that his two former compatriots had been involved with drugs.

The two men holed up in the house had decided not to surrender. Instead, they began making video calls.

Speaking casually, they asked friends and family members how their day went, as if this were a regular conversation instead of a farewell call, according to people who spoke to the pair, who were killed in a gunfight with Thai security forces on May 4.

Ilyas Wo’ka, 32, and Ridwan Cheksoh, 31, also asked for forgiveness, or ma-af, an important concept in Islam and a common request among friends and family, especially during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.

They told people whom they telephoned not to worry about authorities tracing the call, because they would make sure to destroy their phones and SIM cards.

But someone began recording one of the calls on another cellphone.  Soon, footage of the two men was circulating on social media – albeit with no accompanying sound.

Different versions proliferated, with stirring music added in, along with captions like “the martyr’s last smile” and alleged final messages exhorting the “people of Patani” to keep fighting “the colonizers from Siam.”

In the footage, the men – one holding an AK-47 – appear remarkably calm, smiling and laughing, providing a rare glimpse of fugitive combatants that, to some viewers, was humanizing.

“It’s not easy for people who choose to take up arms, to walk down this path, taking into account the hardship, life on the run, and perhaps imprisonment or death,” reflected Nualnoi Thammasathien, a journalist in Pattani, another province in the Deep South, after viewing the footage.

After a three-hour standoff, the men were shot dead as they tried to make a run for it by dashing up the hill toward deeper woods.

The local community deemed them martyrs and buried them as such.

gravesite.jpg
Local residents sit at Ilyas Wo’ka’s gravesite, May 7, 2021. [Don Pathan/BenarNews]

The videos made an emotional connection with local Malay residents across the southern border region, where more than 7,000 have died from insurgency-related violence since January 2004 That’s when a new generation of separatist militants surfaced to pick up where the previous generation had left off a decade earlier.

Hundreds of thousands of baht were donated to the families of the two men within the first three days after their funeral, village elders and relatives said.

Well-wishers, averaging nearly 1,000 a day, strolled through the dead men’s homes. The house where the two positioned themselves during the standoff, and the sites where they were gunned down, also drew visitors.

“The display of moral support to combatants killed by security forces is nothing new,” said Sukriffee Lateh, president of PerMAS (The Federation of Patani Students and Youth). “It’s just that this video call that went public generated so much sympathy and support from the local residents.”

Local people were no longer afraid to show their feelings, said Sukriffee, who led a group of about 15 college students to visit the gravesites and the families of the two deceased men.

The video and open outpouring of support jolted security officials, who wanted to know if the two insurgents were deliberately pursuing their own deaths as a publicity stunt, and if this would be the start of something new in the conflict.

Meanwhile, local people were outraged when ISOC-4, the military’s regional command, linked the two slain insurgents to the brutal killing on April 28 of three members of a Buddhist family in the Sai Buri district of Pattani province. An ISOC-4 press release gave no evidence; neither man was listed in an arrest warrant related to the incident, the local people said.

Sources wouldn’t say plainly how long the men had been members of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the highly secretive armed insurgent group and the largest among rebel organizations in the border region.

Both had been on the run for about two years, but would often slip back home to visit family.

Ilyas did drugs as a teenager and spent time in prison in his early 20s, but came out wanting to learn more about his people and the predicament of this region, friends and family said. He had a wife and three children – aged eight, five and three.

Ridwan taught tadeka, weekly classes where young children learn about Islam and the Malay identity. He was single, and tried to call his father to say goodbye. A young cousin who picked up the phone became hysterical when she realized his situation.

The footage of their final moments seemed to strike a chord in Thailand’s Malay-speaking far south, in a way that the official BRN spokesman – who issues a YouTube video statement once or twice a year – was unable to achieve in almost two decades.

“The message to the Melayu people was clear: keep on fighting for independence,” said Asmadee Bueheng, an executive member of The Patani, a local political action group advocating the right to self-determination for the people of this region.

“This is a challenge for the current crop of political activists who would like to see a political settlement with the Thai state through non-military means,” Asmadee added.

The next round of peace talks between the government and the BRN, had been tentatively slated for late May.

But on May 4, the day of the standoff at Krong Pinang, Malaysian facilitator Abdul Rahim Noor stated that the two sides could not agree on whether the next meeting should be held in person or virtually, and therefore it would be postponed.

Meanwhile, an informal video dispatch from the front lines gave unexpected resonance to what otherwise would have been just another killing in the low-grade separatist conflict that grinds on year after year.

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

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