A man accused of leading an insurgent squad in Thailand’s Deep South for 12 years said he was tired of hiding out from the authorities, after he gave up and turned himself in this week.
Following his surrender at a police station in his home province of Yala, Sakariya Waegaji, 33, said he was prepared to fight charges of arson and possession of weapons, for which he was wanted in two arrest warrants.
Sakariya led a squad belonging to Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK), a combat unit of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the largest and most heavily armed of separatist groups that are fighting Thai security forces in the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South.
“I have to hide all the time since the authorities issued an arrest warrant on me. … Officials were always looking for me, so I fled from my neighborhood and stayed with my friends,” Sakariya told reporters at Yala police station after he surrendered on Tuesday.
“It had been a hardship, I was starving, so my family members consulted with each other and they agreed to contact the headman of Tambon Laba to inform the police,” he said, referring to the name of a village cluster.
On Thursday, the police officer who handled Sakariya’s surrender said the suspect had been bailed out, but that he would stand trial in the criminal cases.
“We proceed with him according to two arrest warrants. He broke criminal codes but we are open for him to find evidence to refute the accusation,” acting Yala provincial police bureau commander Col. Krisda Kaewchandee told BenarNews by phone.
“We will seek an opinion from the attorney general to determine when the cases should proceed. He was cooperative with officials so we gave him some time to prepare for next bail request,” he said.
According to police in Sakariya’s hometown in the mountains of Yala’s Kabang district, he was staying with relatives there.
Decades of insurgency
Beginning in the 1960s, insurgent groups in the Thai Deep South – which encompasses Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces, as well as parts of Songkhla province – have fought for the region to break away from Bangkok rule. The insurgency died down but then picked up again in 2004, when the BRN regained strength.
Since the conflict re-ignited 12 years ago, more than 6,700 people have been killed in violence associated with it, according to Deep South Watch, a think-thank that monitors the region.
According to a retired Thai military general who spent seven years in Deep South, the upper echelon of the BRN’s leadership installed and commanded RKK cells in every village in the region.
“Each cell is assigned as a ‘sleeper cell’ that operates upon the call from above in the secretive chain of command. RKK team members normally do not know the middle-level BRN members and above,” retired Gen. Samrej Srirai, former deputy commander of the 4th Army Region that oversees the Deep South, told BenarNews last year, noting that the cells operated across the Thai-Malaysia border.
Beginning in 2007, the regional branch of Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) began a counter-insurgency campaign aimed at encouraging southern rebels to lay down their arms – whose latest program is known as the “Bring People Home Project.”
Col. Pramote Prom-in, the regional spokesman for ISOC, said the project aimed to rehabilitate and return to normal life those facing criminal charges and others who fear arbitrary prosecution, even if they did not commit a crime.
About 4,000 people have joined the project, Pramote said. There are about 9,000 BRN militants whom authorities plan to re-integrate into society.
In the case of Sakariya, he likely does not qualify for the program yet because he faces trial on the criminal charges, according to Krisda.