A relative calm has returned to Thailand’s Muslim-majority Deep South after four straight weeks of violence connected to a separatist insurgency in the region, but people are nervous, especially Thai security forces who took some serious beatings.
Rebels were venting their anger at Thai security forces, hitting both soft and hard targets in retaliation for the alleged extra-judicial killings of two suspected insurgents on a back road in Narathiwat province’s Rueso district on March 29.
The latest attack by suspected rebels, on April 27, resulted in the killings of six Thai soldiers shot at close range following a roadside bomb blast that forced their vehicle off the road in the same district of Narathiwat.
Insurgents tried to set the dead soldiers on fire. They succeeded in partly burning four of them before retreating into the woods when government troops who were patrolling nearby fired on them.
The burning of slain government soldiers, as well as decapitations and castrations, were common in 2007, the most violent year of the current phase of the insurgency that re-flared in January 2004 after a decade of calm in the restive Deep South.
Pressure from local community and grassroots Muslim clerics against such practices, as well as arson attacks targeting public schools, brought an end to what they considered to be “violations” of Islam’s rules of war, according to village-based religious leaders who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Villagers and clerics are supportive of the insurgents, who they said were fighting against “invading” Thai troops, but they oppose the mutilation of the bodies of government soldiers.
Sources in rebel group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) said the movement did not endorse such violations, but they stated that last week’s attempt to burn the dead soldiers was a “one-off incident.”
What’s next for Bangkok?
In Bangkok, the recent spike in violence in the Deep South has placed additional strain on security planners.
They are contemplating their next move following a statement from the BRN’s ruling council on April 10 that called for international participation and observation should the Thai government wish to negotiate with them directly.
BRN rejected the ongoing peace talks under way for almost two years between the Thai government and MARA Patani, an umbrella organization of long-standing separatist ogranizations.
Sources in the BRN movement dismissed reports that the spike in violence in April was in response to the new Thai constitution signed into law four days before BRN issued its statement.
BRN said it was against the constitution and urged the Malay Muslim residents of the Deep South to vote against the charter in an August 2016 constitutional referendum, which they overwhelmingly did.
BRN deemed the vicious retaliation over the past month as necessary because the Thai side, in BRN’s view, had crossed a red line.
Members said it was one thing if the two suspects were killed in a fair gunfight but the movement will not tolerate Thai authorities singling out people suspected of having links to BRN and killing them.
Rules of engagement have long been a contentious issue as the two sides do not have direct communication to come up with a meaningful definition of what constitutes a red line.
Thai soldiers in the Fourth Army Area, the command that oversees the day-to-day insurgency in Thailand’s Malay-speaking southernmost provinces, said they would like to see policy makers in Bangkok set up a direct channel of communication with the BRN, as the group demanded, as opposed to the official channel with MARA Patani as the designated counterpart.
One positive note following this BRN demand was that Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha did not shoot down the request outright but suggested that BRN talked with MARA Patani.
Thai officials see Prayuth’s remark as “buying time.”
But whether this means that Bangkok is ready to consider making a meaningful concession to the BRN or the Malays of Patani, on the other hand, remains to be seen.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst and consultant.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.