A SPECIAL REPORT
Lights, camera, action!
The recent spike in violence in the South is spearheaded by a new crop of insurgents who often choose to attack in front of security cameras, striving for a bigger psychological impact.It was like synchronised swimming. The two pickup trucks came from behind and neatly positioned themselves adjacent to each of the two motorbikes. Within a split second of coming neck-and-neck with the two motorbikes, the gunmen on the back of the pickups commenced fire, riddling four soldiers with bullets from close range.
Another pickup truck flanked the third motorbike and kept the two remaining soldiers at bay with sporadic gunfire. Outgunned and outnumbered, the soldiers stayed put and then retreated.
The timing and coordination of the Ma-Yor attack was dead on. But this was not Olympic sport. In fact, such incidents take place almost on a daily basis in the three southernmost border provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat where more than 5,000 have died in the violence.
It didn't take long for the footage to make its way to local television, YouTube and other media. The vividness of the Ma-Yor attack sent a big chill throughout the country and shook up security officials and policy-makers, who are now forced to explain the spike in violence despite claims of progress on the ground.
"The insurgents appeared to be more daring and bold, often choosing to attack in front of security cameras. They are looking to create a greater psychological impact with little regard to civilian casualties, said Human Rights Watch's Sunai Phasuk.
Leaders in the exiled community confirmed the analysis, saying the current crop of militants, locally referred to as juwae, or fighters in Patani Malay dialect, have stepped up their attacks in recent months as part of their ongoing strategy to make the area as ungovernable as possible.
As a sign of desperation, the government quickly appointed Deputy PM Chalerm Yoobamrung, a veteran but erratic politician, to take care of security matters in the deep South.
Angkhana Neelaphaijit, chairperson of the Justice for Peace Foundation, called the move a "knee-jerk" reaction. "I believe Prime Minister Yingluck needs to take direct charge of the situation in the South, instead of passing the buck to a politician who has a reputation of disrespecting other people's viewpoints."
Two days after the announcement, the insurgents launched an attack on CS Pattani Hotel, a place popular among foreigners and local VIPs visiting the deep South. And last Wednesday, a public school came under arson attack. The incident was a chilling reminder of 2007, when more than 100 public schools were burned down by insurgents.
Assistant Prof Srisompob Jitpiromsri, the director of Prince of Songkhla University-based Deep South Watch, believes the insurgents are drifting towards a higher level of information warfare. "It was as if they were performing for the camera, as if they wanted the authorities to see what they are capable of doing," said Srisompob, in reference to the Ma-Yor and other attacks.
"Insurgency and terrorism are essentially communicative actions. In the Ma-Yor operation, the insurgency scored big and managed to use the government's communication equipment to get their point across," Srisompob said.
If the insurgents in the deep South are looking to create greater psychological impact by their activities, then making the area ungovernable may no longer be enough for them.
For the time being, said Sunai, all agencies are hard-pressed to come up with a better explanation and analysis than the usual simplistic line that described the militants as drug-crazy youth who have embraced false Islamic teachings and are being taught a distorted version of Thailand's history. The spike in violence over the past eight months coincides with the government's effort to carry out secret talks with leaders of long-standing separatist groups in exile. They are hoping the old guard could talk sense to the new generation of militants. The talks led up to a secret meeting last March between fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra, the de facto leader of the current government, and about 16 Patani Malay separatist leaders.
Thaksin thought his presence would make a difference. But as it turned out, the meeting was boycotted by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C), the one group that has the best working relations with the new generation of militants currently operating on the ground.
Two weeks after the meeting, militants on the ground carried out triple bomb attacks on a short stretch of a busy street in downtown Yala, killing 10 and injuring more than 100 people. The same day also saw a car bomb going off at a basement parking lot in a downtown hotel in Hat Yai that killed three and injured more than 400.
Sunai called the March 31 attack a slap in the face for Thaksin and the so-called peace initiative of the government. With the secret peace move floundering and violence rising, all eyes are on Yingluck to see what steps she will take.