This past Friday, suspected separatist insurgents gunned down two monks – an abbot and vice abbot – and wounded two other clerics during an attack on a Buddhist temple in Sungai Padi, a district of southern Thailand’s Narathiwat province.
The shooting was the first killing targeting the Buddhist clergy in the southern border region in five years.
The slain abbot, Prakru Prachote Rattananurak, was said to have had close working relations with local residents from both the Buddhist and Muslim communities. They praised his positive outlook on life, no matter how bleak the situation got in the historically contested and predominantly Islamic Thai Deep South.
Human rights organizations were quick to condemn the shootings, as did Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who ordered a manhunt for the killers and urged people not to lose faith in the military government’s efforts to end the conflict in the southern border region.
And, in a statement released Monday, Prayuth accused the insurgents of trying to provoke a nasty retaliation from the government’s security forces aimed at attracting international intervention.
After visiting the temple where the monks were killed, Thailand’s Army chief, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong told reporters that he planned to ask soldiers to volunteer to become ordained as monks in temples across the Far South to make locals feel safer. He didn’t say whether the undercover soldiers would carry weapons.
Insurgents targeted the monks in last week’s shooting to retaliate for the slayings in recent months of three Muslim clerics in the Deep South, and to reject pressure put on leaders of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel group to join Malaysia-brokered peace talks, sources familiar with the organization said.
BRN is a long-standing armed separatist group that controls virtually all insurgent forces in Thailand’s southernmost provinces.
According to the sources, top BRN leaders went into hiding because they grew tired of the relentless and nagging pressure on them to meet with Thailand’s negotiators in the talks.
What remains unclear is whether Friday’s killings represented a one-off incident or whether it marked a return to a period more than a decade ago, when insurgents regularly targeted Buddhist temples and monks as a way to humiliate the government’s security apparatus in the south.
In 2006-07, the region was gripped by a spate of arson attacks that targeted more than 100 public schools, and during which the bodies of dead soldiers were mutilated or decapitated. All that stopped after local Muslim leaders and activists spoke out and told the insurgents that the brutality only undermined their political objective.
Since then, there has been an understanding between the two warring sides, a sort of unwritten ground rule that no children and no religious figures, monks and imams should be harmed. However, there have been violations, which have usually fanned more violence.
On Jan. 11, Doloh Sarai, the last of the three imams to be slain in recent attacks, was shot dead by gunmen as he rode his motorbike in Narathiwat’s Ruesoh district.
The attack, in which the assailants used military-grade weapons, took place about 200 meters (656 feet) from an army checkpoint. Locals and separatist sources said a government or pro-government death squad was behind the killing.
There were little or no condolences from the country’s national leaders following the deaths of the three Muslim leaders, and investigations into their killings didn’t seem to be going anywhere, said a local Muslim activist, Suhaimee Dulasa.
“Peace will prevail when there is an understanding that all human lives are precious, regardless of who the victims may be,” said Suhaimee, a senior member of The Patani, a political action group that promotes the right to self-determination for the people of this restive region.
The last time a Thai Buddhist monk was killed in an insurgency-related incident was July 2015 in Sai Buri, a district of Pattani province, when an IED hidden in a trash can went off. The apparent target was a group of patrolling soldiers, not the monk.
In February 2014, in Pattani’s Mae Lan district, insurgents dressed in military fatigues opened fire on residents who were giving alms to monks. Four people, including a monk and a young boy, died in the attack.
It came days after three boys under age 10 were slain at their home in Narathiwat’s Bacho district. Two paramilitary rangers confessed to killing the boys – apparently to get a spate of retaliatory attacks to stop – but retracted their confession when the case went to court months later.
In November 2012, a member of the Islamic Committee of Yala province, imam Abdullateh Todir, was shot dead in Yaha district.
His killing ignited a six-week long spike of violence and a refusal by the Muslim leaders in the region to endorse a peace initiative by then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government that was officially launched in Kuala Lumpur in February 2013.
In May 2011, a roadside bomb killed, set off by insurgents who lay in wait from a nearby tree line, killed two monks in Yaha district. The attack fell on Visaka Bucha, the most important day on the Buddhist calendar.
Afterward Thai national media went crazy for days, concluding that the attack was a deliberate attempt to drive a bigger wedge between Buddhists and Muslims. But investigators said there was no line of vision and the perpetrators could not have seen the monks sitting inside a taxi.
‘Now it’s time to back off’
The killing of the monks on Friday came amid a spike since last November in violence by the insurgents. According to conversations with sources on both side of the conflict, the rebels were sending a message to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur to stop pressuring their leaders to come to the negotiating table.
The shooting death of the three imams over the past recent months was also a factor because it violated the aforementioned unwritten ground rule, the sources said.
The spike in violence in this restive region has come at a time when the current crop of the junta is about to announce the date for the next general election.
There isn’t much for Gen. Prayuth to show for in terms of a legacy for his counterinsurgency in the Deep South. A simple face-to-face meeting between Thai representatives and BRN leaders at this juncture would be considered a major breakthrough, and perhaps good enough for Prayuth to claim progress.
Prayuth recently replaced his chief negotiator for three years with another retired army general, Udomchai Thammasarorat, who appeared to be reaching out to members of the international community for advice – but not mediation – on how to advance the talks.
Other than that, Bangkok doesn’t appear to want to make any meaningful concessions to the BRN, who have already said they were not interested in negotiating with the Thais at this time.
And if and when they do decide to come to the table, according to the BRN’s demands, the peace process must be in line with international best practices – which means mediation by members of the international community.
The Friday killings of the monks jolted the entire nation, including representatives from local Malay civil society organizations (CSO) who have been quietly trying to convince the insurgents to respect humanitarian principles and international norms.
“They have made their point, and now it’s time to back off a little,” said one CSO member who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Bringing in some degree of civility has been a very difficult challenge. A significant number of militants on the ground still see these humanitarian principles, such as International Humanitarian Law and rules of engagement, as foreign ideas that not only tie their hands in a fight where the playing field is already against them,” the source said.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security and development consultant for international organizations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.