Criminal syndicates and corrupt officials promote and profit from violence in Thailand’s Deep South, clouding efforts to resolve an insurgency there, people who know the region well told BenarNews.
Violent incidents occur almost daily in provinces on Thailand’s southern border where a separatist conflict has lasted for decades. More than 15,000 gun or bomb attacks have been recorded in the region since January 2004, according to Deep South Watch, a local think-tank.
Police typically pin the blame on insurgents, but notoriously elusive rebel groups never claim or deny responsibility for attacks.
“We cannot deny that there are separatists. There are many, in fact,” Saki Pitakkhumpol, a professor of peace studies at Prince of Songkla University in southern Thailand, told BenarNews.
“But there are contraband smuggling rings, and they need to create an environment to facilitate their business. As well, there are drug-trafficking syndicates, and personal conflicts among local gang-landers,” he said, adding, “When they get angry at each other, they use bomb attacks. When the officials cannot identify the real cause, they say the incidents are separatist-related.”
Apart from drug-smuggling, the Deep South has been notorious as a transit route for the cross-border smuggling into neighboring Malaysia of undocumented migrants and Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.
Moreover, “underground syndicates hire separatist groups to carry out attacks to divert the real attention from them,” said Saki, whose father, Asis Pitakkhumpol, is Thailand’s Sheikhul Islam, or government-appointed leader of Thai Muslims.
Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces, near the Thai border with Malaysia, were part of a Malay Muslim sultanate annexed by mostly Buddhist Thailand over a century ago. Today 80 percent of the Deep South’s 1.7 million residents are Muslim Malay-Patani, or Muslim Thais, a term preferred by Thai authorities.
Since the separatist insurgency reignited in 2004, more than 6,500 people of both faiths and all ages have been killed, according to Deep South Watch.
Saki Pitakkhumpol [Photo courtesy of Saki Pitakkhumpol]
Climate of fear
Much of the violence in the Deep South is carried out by the most powerful insurgent group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), according to Samrej Srirai, a general, now retired, who was posted in the south from 2005 to 2013.
“The BRN wants to have independence. Its tactics are violent attacks and to exploit Islamism by depicting [Thais] as Siamese infidel intruders,” said Samrej, who was deputy commander of the 4th Army Region, which oversees southern Thailand, at the end of his tenure.
“They have a secretive chain of command, and sleeper cells of RKK militants,” he said, using the Malay-language acronym for an armed group in the south, Runda Kumpulan Kecil.
“The cells do not know anyone beyond their direct commanders, and the cells do not know each other,” he told BenarNews.
In addition, the insurgents “have a shadow administration in the provincial level, the district level, and down to village level.”
But violence is also carried out by criminal syndicates who smuggle palm oil, petroleum and bootlegged goods into Thailand, and illegal drugs into Malaysia, he said.
“Black marketers used thugs to create turbulence, to cause a climate of fear,” he said.
“The underground syndicates are the allies of the insurgents, but they do not have armed elements of their own,” he added.
He alleged that authorities were being paid off by the syndicates.
“Drugs, oil smuggling, these illegal activities cannot be conducted without Thai officials’ involvement. Gangsters gave them a kickback,” he said.
Speaking to BenarNews on condition of anonymity, a Narathiwat resident close to an illicit smuggling ring said that illegal activities had been going on for a long time in the Deep South and that some local and national-level leaders had been involved.
“There have been illegal activities that are backed by local politicians and national-level politicians. The methamphetamine trade is an obvious [example],” he said.
The border towns of Sungai Kolok, Dan Nok and Padang Besar are transit points for drugs to Malaysia, and some operators have both Malaysian and Thai citizenship “so they can escape prosecution in Thailand,” he said.
Criminal syndicates even sponsor insurgent violence to distract authorities, he alleged.
‘There are good and bad persons in any organization’
According to Col. Pramote Prom-in, a spokesman the regional forward office of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), violence perpetrated by insurgents is a tiny fraction of violence carried out across the region by criminal elements.
“The insurgent-induced violence in Deep South accounts for only 5 percent, while 95 percent is linked to what we call ‘opportunistic threats’: violence by racketeering in drugs trade, illegal goods and oil smuggle and so on,” Pramote told BenarNews.
Nonetheless, authorities in the Deep South have suspected insurgents of being behind a spate of attacks that has killed at least 44 people across the region since early February.
“We cannot verify whether there are officials involved. There are good and bad persons in any organization but we have punishments for that,” Pramote said, adding that military officers face “two-times harsher punishments” for taking part in criminal activity.
Former Army Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen is on trial in Bangkok with some 90 other suspected members of a major human trafficking ring that allegedly operated in Thailand southern border region and was uncovered last year during a Thai crackdown on illegal immigration.
“In many cases, there are links between the racketeers and insurgents because they use the same groups of militants and the same weapons,” Pramote said.
‘It’s not going to go away’
On top of the prevalence of criminal gangs operating in the region, there are some 9,000 militants in the Deep South affiliated with a variety of insurgent groups and factions, according to estimates by the government and by Mara Patani, a committee representing the rebels that has been involved in recent efforts to restart peace talks.
Those efforts ground to an apparent halt in April when the Thai government declined to endorse terms of reference that the two sides had hammered out in a series of encounters over a year’s time.
At the time, lead Thai negotiator Gen. Aksara Kerdpol said it was unclear whether rebel ranks were united behind Mara Patani.
Gen. Samrej suggested that the only way to achieve peace would be to reach out to the RKK commanders.
“We need to talk with those middle-level commanders in Deep South to stop the carnage,” he said.
Metha Mekharath, chairman of Muslims for Peace in Narathiwat, said the missing element in the peace process was political will to solve the problem.
“The problem in the Deep South has a long history. It’s not going to go away. I believe government agencies have all the information about the insurgents. What have they done with it?” he asked.