Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha met with senior security officials Wednesday to review deployment of forces in Thailand’s Deep South after suspected rebels killed 15 village defense volunteers in what authorities described as the deadliest attacks since the separatist insurgency reignited in 2004.
At least four security personnel were also injured when motorcycle-riding gunmen and others on foot opened fire on two checkpoints in Maung, a district of southern Thailand’s Yala province, late Tuesday, officials said.
“Today we have a meeting with the deputy director of internal security operations on how to adjust the forces,” Prayuth told reporters in Bangkok without elaborating.
It was not clear if Prayuth was considering deploying more security forces to the southern border region.
“I reiterate for those on duty to be careful. Those checkpoints are far-off from towns and they can be weak spots and flashpoints,” he said.
Tuesday’s attacks were the bloodiest since April 28, 2004, when suspected insurgents, including machete-wielding Muslim youths, launched pre-dawn attacks on 11 security checkpoints in three provinces. In the ensuing melee, authorities said, 107 attackers and five members of the security forces were killed.
One of the gunmen in the attacks on Tuesday could have been injured, according to a village resident.
“About seven to eight attackers on foot approached the outpost and opened fire,” a resident of Ban Tung Sadao village told BenarNews hours later.
“One defense volunteer tried to escape, but he was still hit and he returned fire,” the resident said, requesting anonymity for security reasons. “I saw one attacker getting shot and his friends dragged him away.”
Col. Taweesak Thongsongsi, chief of a local police station, confirmed that some members of the security forces traded shots with the attackers, who were armed with assault rifles and pistols.
“They then retreated into a nearby rubber plantation,” he said. “We believe they are insurgents.”
The attacks appeared to be coordinated, he said, with the insurgents scattering nails designed as spikes along a highway to puncture tires of vehicles entering the province. A small improvised explosive device (IED) was found near an electrical pole and two more unexploded IEDs were found hours later, police said.
About 70,000 soldiers and 20,000 police officers are deployed in the southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, which has a population of about 2 million, about 75 percent of whom are ethnic Malay Muslims in predominantly Buddhist Thailand, officials said.
‘I prayed for my husband to be safe’
Five civilians were among the 15 people killed along with police, government officials and defense volunteers.
Thirteen of the people who died in Tuesday’s carnage were Buddhists. On Wednesday, relatives of one of two Muslims killed in the attacks, 40-year-old defense volunteer Samsami Sama, held a funeral for him.
“I sent my daughter to bed, and my husband had dinner and then left for the outpost. I later heard the sound of gunfire from the post, and I prayed for my husband to be safe,” his widow, Sarinya Jaiya, told BenarNews.
The village headman came by at midnight to inform her that Samsami was dead.
“I burst into tears with sadness. I don’t know what to do. Now I can’t even tell my daughter where her father has gone,” she said, referring to the couple’s 3-year-old child.
Village defense forces receive weapons, mostly shotguns, and training from the Thai army but receive only a small allowance, with no salaries.
Lt. Gen. Pornsak Poolsawat, chief of the 4th Army regional command, visited the area on Wednesday and called on villagers to inform authorities about the presence of suspected insurgents in their villages.
“This is the first time in several years that attacks on civilian outposts cost so many lives,” he said. “We need to be mobile, avoiding being sitting ducks in outposts.”
Almost 7,000 people have been killed in the region since the long-running separatist insurgency flared up again 15 years ago, according to think-tanks and nonprofit groups.
Analysts believe that most of the violence is perpetrated by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), an offshoot of the Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front, which was established in the 1960s to seek independence. Military intelligence officials believe BRN controls about 8,000 militants in the Deep South.
Another group, the Patani United Liberation Front (PULO), publicly calls for a separatist state and claims to control much of the insurgency.
“BRN militants don’t usually attack village defense volunteers,” Don Pathan, a security analyst and longtime observer of the region’s conflict, told BenarNews. “But if they crossed the line and become part of the Thai government security apparatus, then the militants would deem them as legitimate targets.”
The killings brought to at least 95 the death toll in violence connected to the southern insurgency so far this year, according to information compiled by BenarNews from police and military reports.
The Thai government, meanwhile, has been holding peace talks with the insurgents since 2015, but the Malaysia-brokered negotiations have achieved no breakthroughs.
Questions have persisted as to whether the most militant elements in the decentralized BRN have ever signed on to the talks, which have yet to formally resume since Prayuth was elected prime minister in April.
Kasturi Mahkota, leader of PULO-MKP and a member of the Mara Pattani peace-talks panel, told BenarNews that Tuesday’s attacks underscored “one of the main reasons why the peace process must be worked out as soon as possible.”
“What happened in Yala, where 15 people were killed, would be the norm [in the Deep South] as long as the process to find solution is stuck and there is lack of commitment on the part of the Thai government,” he said, as he emphasized that he did not know who was responsible for the latest deadly attacks.
Thai government representatives were not immediately available for comment.
“The peace process will continue, and so do the field actions,” he said, “as long as no agreement is reached.”
Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.