Southern rebels welcome Thailand’s new govt with a bang

A commentary by Don Pathan
Pattani, Thailand
Southern rebels welcome Thailand’s new govt with a bang Lt. Gen. Santi Sakuntanark, the regional army commander, speaks with soldiers investigating the scene of a rebel attack that killed four security officers and injured four others in Yarang, a district of Pattani province in Thailand’s Deep South, Aug. 29, 2023.

Late last month, separatist rebels jolted Thailand’s security apparatus by launching simultaneous attacks in a pocket of the southern border region that lasted considerably longer than their usual hit-and-run raids.  

The coordinated attacks came only a few days after Parliament elected Srettha Thavisin as the new prime minister, and their intensity rattled the nerves of the guardians of Thai security. And with a new government finally in place after a post-polls impasse that lasted months, peace talks between the Thai government and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the main insurgent group in the far south, are expected to resume. 

In the first of the three recent attacks in Yarang, a district of Pattani province, a group of rebels used M60 machine-guns – military-grade weapons that require two people to operate them – as well as grenades.

Four security officials – two police officers and two members of a provincial security detail – were killed and four other policemen were injured during the gunfight that ensued on Aug. 28. The incident lasted more than 10 minutes – an eternity for attacks by suspected BRN rebels. 

In the second and simultaneous attack, a police unit came under a hail of gunfire as it passed by a local Buddhist temple. Meanwhile, only a kilometer away, a powerful explosive took down a utility pole, seemingly as a smokescreen so that the rebels could make their getaway a little easier, an army officer said. 

Explosions from roadside bombs often preceed rebel raids, but the gunfights that follow usually don’t last longer than three minutes, said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.  

“I can’t recall the last time an M60 was used by the separatists,” the officer said. “We know that they had taken some from the Pileng operation,” he added, referring to an arms heist by BRN rebels in January 2004, when they stole more than 350 weapons from an army battalion’s weapons’ depot in neighboring Narathiwat province.

Thailand's Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin reads the policy statement at Parliament in Bangkok, Sept. 11, 2023 [AP]

What was particularly disturbing about the attack in Pattani on Aug. 28 was that several reels of video footage were recorded at the scene and from different vantage points, the officer said. 

Some of the footage was filmed from the position from where the rebels were shooting; other footage was taken from “safe” positions, as if the videographer knew about the attack ahead of time, the officer noted. 

Postings of the various footage on social media, however, were quickly taken down as if to blur the origin of the videos and to throw off investigators. 

‘Srettha doesn’t seem to care’

Some activists in the region such as Artef Sohko, the president of The Patani, a political action group that advocates the right to self-determination for the people of this historically contested region, see the coordinated attacks as BRN’s way of “welcoming” the new government. 

In other words, it was a sign of things to come for the newly inducted government of Srettha, who, in his policy speech to Parliament this week, appealed to the country’s people – regardless of their ethnicities, religions and ideologies – to live in harmony. 

He did not single out or mention the far south, where more than 7,300 people have been killed from insurgency-related violence in the mainly Malay Muslim border region since early 2004. 

“Srettha doesn’t seem to care about the conflict in the Patani region and he is surrounded by people who do not really want to see the peace process becomes a national agenda as it could lead to internationalization of the conflict,” said Asmadee Bueheng, a Pattani-based writer and the author of “Rawang Tang Satha” (“On the Path of Faith”), published in March 2023. 

“Internationalization means outside interference and Thailand never wanted that,” Asmadee said.

Conflict and insurgency in the far south, including the Malaysia-brokered peace talks between the government and the BRN, was largely ignored by Thailand’s political parties. 

That includes the local Malay party, Prachachat, which performed well in the May 14 general election. Campaigning on a platform that emphasized the local Muslim identity, the party won nine of the 14 parliamentary seats representing the region.

When it was safe to do so, Prachachat played the Islamic card and pandered to the region’s religous minority, such as through condemning Thailand’s legalization of marijuana on moral grounds. But the party stayed away from the peace process and the issue of conflict resolution.

That would have been a hard sell to the Thai public, who can be unkind to people who challenge the Thai state-constructed narrative and identity. Many see the Malay Muslim minority’s refusal to embrace the Thai identity as a direct challenge to the country’s nationhood.

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station during the general election in Pattani, southern Thailand, May 14, 2023. [Tuwaedaniya Meringing/AFP]

According to an informed source, Prachachat Party leader Thawee Sodsong, who is the new minister of justice, has been approached to become the chairman of the steering committee overseeing the peace process, although he has kept tight-lipped about that prospect. In the past, the post was occupied by Thailand’s prime minister. 

Thawee has a long and personal history in the far south, where he served as secretary-general of the multi-agency Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC) during the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in May 2014. He was also the architect foran earlier iteration of the peace process between Thailand and the BRN, launched in Kuala Lumpur a decade ago. 

Should Thawee take the position, it will not be smooth sailing. 

Being close to the Shinawatra political family has its price. It places him on the other side of the political divide from the conservative military. Prachachat may be part of Srettha’s new ruling coalition that includes pro-military parties, but the political divide is still very much there. 

Moreover, the Thai army never liked the idea of negotiating with the rebels because they believe that military means can bring the long-running southern insurgency to an end. 

As did the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the army preferred to label the separatist movements as criminal organizations. In their mind, to acknowledge the political underpinnings of the violence will only help legitimize the separatist movements. 

Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst who works on conflict and insurgency in the Southeast Asia region. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of BenarNews.


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