'Pushing people towards the insurgents'
Published on August 23, 2007
- For the past three months or so, members of the Thai Army and Royal Thai Police have been carrying out raids on various pockets of communities in the Muslim-majority South to hunt down a new generation of Malay insurgents accused of being behind the violence in the region.
Scores of people, at times over 100 in a single outing, have been rounded up during each of these raids. The detainees include suspected insurgents and their sympathisers, neighbours, and friends, and sometimes they appear to be innocent bystanders.
The Army said the move is part of the military's strategy to weed out the insurgents from the rest of the villagers. They call it "separating the fish from the water", supposedly, a tactic employed during the height of the communist insurgency.
The detainees are taken to an Army camp in Pattani where authorities check their names against a list of suspected insurgents.
Those who have arrest warrants outstanding are kept behind bars, while those considered to be "high risk" are sent to military-run boot camps where they go through a four-month course aimed at making them good citizens.
Besides coming together in formation to sing the national anthem and pick up a new skill, they will also listen to Muslim clerics who will tell them that they should not be thinking about taking up arms against the state to liberate their historic homeland known as "Patani".
Family members are permitted to make routine visits, but no one seems to know exactly what goes on inside these camps when the visitors are gone. About 200 are being held in various camps in the upper South.
Thai officials defended the approach, saying "high-risk" individuals should not be left alone in remote villages where hardcore insurgents have all the time in the world to incite them into becoming militants, said one senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While the suspected militants and "high-risk" individuals are under detention, government officials and rangers are sent in to try to win the people over to their side.
But given the rangers' reputation for being trigger happy, using these government militias to win hearts and minds may not exactly be a wise move.
"They slap us in the face and then they turn around and pat us on the back," said Bang Seng, a villager from Narathiwat's Sungai Padi district who was detained in one of the raids. He asked that his real name and village not be identified.
Across the street from his house is a friend who was also taken in and kept in detention for more than two weeks before being released.
"We didn't know what our rights were and none of us dared to ask. They confiscated my butcher knives and I was so afraid they were going to throw some charges against me for having them," he said.
More than 40 in all were rounded up on that dreadful morning from this particular village but less than half of them were released after more than two weeks of detention. The rest, supposedly those deemed by authorities as being too "high-risk", were sent to military camps in provinces in the upper South. They are expected to be released by the end of October.
"It's a way of us reasserting the state's authority and showing the militants what we can do," said a senior officer at the Fourth Army Area.
According to villagers, the Army did exactly just that - flexed their military might as more than 200 soldiers and rangers surrounded the village and entered their homes one by one.
All were taken in on the same military vehicle. For three days, all would be interrogated one by one - some more than others, especially those in their 20s.
"The first night was the worst," said a man in his sixties.
"No one in my cell could sleep. We were just too scared. Nobody knew what was going to happen," said Bae Mah, 60.
Twice a day the detainees are instructed to line up in formation to sing the Thai national anthem.
"We older guys couldn't speak much Thai so we just mumbled the words, rightly and wrongly, to go with the tune," he said.
Bae Mah said he wasn't sure what the authorities were trying to achieve by forcing him to sing a song in a language he didn't understand. For him, such official ceremony was the stuff of television. He never thought it was applicable to him until he was detained.
A big breath of fresh air came on the fourth day when family members were permitted to visit the detainees.
"I cried when I saw my wife," said Bae Mah, who let out a giggle along with his wife who was sitting just behind him.
Locals here say their fear of the security forces is not unfounded. Indeed, talks of extra-judicial killings and abductions are ripe in just about every community here, while memories of the Tak Bai massacre - when at least 79 young Malay-Muslim men died from suffocation while being transported on the back of military trucks - have yet to subside in the minds of many.
"Don't they know that if we were insurgents we wouldn't be sticking around to be taken in?" asked Bang Seng.
"They keep telling us that we must love the country in which we live. But what they are doing is actually pushing the people further away and possibly towards the insurgents," he said.
Part II: Locals cling to hopes of a solution in South
Published on August 24, 2007 - For the battered military and its Army-installed government, the ongoing raids and the mass arrests, not to mention the "indoctrination" process in the deep South, were meant to rattle the cages of the insurgents just as much as for domestic consumption.
Bang Seng (not his real name), a villager from Narathiwat's Sungai Padi district who was detained in one of the raids, thinks the officials were just out to reach certain quotas - like the drug war during the Thaksin years when the body count became some sort of a benchmark. But this time round, it's the number of people they put in boot camps, he explained.
"They got this scanner that is supposed to detect bomb-making materials but they try to pass it off as some sort of a lie-detector machine," Bang Seng said.
Indeed, with an eye set on cementing their place in Thai politics following the coup last September, the military has been hard up for success stories.
Up until the shakedown two months ago, Thai soldiers were largely doing police work - rushing to crime scenes where forensic police collected physical evidence with the hope that it would lead to something meaningful.
Patrols don't seem to be well coordinated, as suggested by the slow arrival of reinforcements following gunfights, while checkpoints are hardly manned, suggesting the absence of a security grid.
But while roadside bombings around Yala may have ceased these past two months, direct, as well as simultaneous attacks, are being carried out outside of the areas targeted for raids.
It may not be Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation where convoys would have to be escorted by helicopter gun-ships, but the high number of simultaneous attacks has a tendency to jolt the nerves of political and security leaders.
Moreover, few officials here are willing to say that this is the result of a "balloon effect" - a squeeze in one area causing another location to blow up - as this would discredit the so-called headway they have made with these raids.
But coming to terms with reality has never been a strong trait of the Thai military. Violence in the region emerged in late 2001 but it was not until the January 2004 raid on an army battalion that the government finally admitted that a new generation of Malay-Muslim separatists had emerged. The political underpinnings of the raid were just too much for the Bangkok government to continue to dismiss the militants as "sparrow bandits".
But, as they try to change the minds of the young Malays, conceivably Thai military officials could be digging their own graves. No one in their right mind would actually believe that two to four months of indoctrination in an Army boot camp would change the minds of these young men.
Secondly, because of the organic and secretive nature of this generation of militants, there are concerns among some intelligence officials that the government's latest tactics could be providing the insurgents with a needed forum - in this case an Army camp - to come together and strengthen their network.
Strangely, the Army is billing these mass arrests over the past two months as an olive branch it is extending to the community. Turn your back on the insurgents - or better yet, turn them in - and we all can live in peace, the Malays of Patani are often told.
For the better part of the past 100 years, the Malays of Patani were told that they must appreciate all that the Thai state has given them and that they must learn to embrace the values that define Thailand's nation-state. They have also been told that they need to learn to be obedient.
But Malays here say the state's attitude towards them is not only racist, but it comes at the expense of their cultural identity, which they see as being inseparable from Islam.
Although they detest the ethnocentric nature of Thailand's nation-state ideology, locals here said it doesn't necessary mean that they want to separate from the Kingdom.
The high turnout for the general election, including the recent referendum on the constitution, suggested that the Malays here still have hope that somehow the system will come through for them.
But six years later there is nothing to indicate that the violence will end any time soon. "We are just buying time until a political solution comes up," said one senior Thai general who worked on policy concerning the restive region.
Over the years none of the so-called "breakthroughs" have failed to change the course of the insurgency as militants continue to put up a nasty fight.
Once in a while the troops stumble upon a small cache of weapons, as in the case of a hot pursuit that led to the Islam Burapha boarding school. But this small cache that belonged to about six or seven teachers was enough for the authorities to declare a major success. A sign of desperation, one might say, but after years of being on the receiving end, a handful of contraband could seem like a big bag of gold.
Some in the Fourth Army Area actually believe that sooner or later this ongoing shakedown will lead to mass surrender, thus, making concessions with the old guard irrelevant. Apparently, they didn't say anything about Malay separatism, an idea that has refused to go away even after more than 100 years of direct rule by the Thai state.
Don Pathan is The Nation's regional news editor. This is the concluding part of his report on the deep South. The first report was published yesterday.