Southern militants have scant desire to negotiate
Published on January 19, 2010 -
The staged surrender of Suthirak Kongsuwan, one of the suspects behind the massacre at a Narathiwat mosque in June 2009, may not bring needed breathing space for the Abhisit government because, say members of separatist groups, the damage may be irreversible. A secret peace process has been derailed and it will take some time before it gets back on track.
JUST OVER seven months ago, six gunmen sneaked up on a mosque full of people conducting evening prayer in a village surrounded by military camps. They opened fire, killing ten and injuring 11 others.
The 11th victim died in hospital the following day. In a typical knee-jerk reaction, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Tuegsuband insisted that the June 8, 2009 massacre at Ai Bayae village mosque in Narathiwat was not the work of Thai security forces, although he could not say for sure who the gunmen were.JUST OVER seven months ago, six gunmen sneaked up on a mosque full of people conducting evening prayer in a village surrounded by military camps. They opened fire, killing ten and injuring 11 others.
Local media reported unnamed security officials saying the massacre was the work of Malay Muslim militants bent on driving a bigger wedge between the Malay-speaking region and the state. Other reports quoting unnamed sources said the massacre stemmed from conflict between Muslim missionaries and the Malay villagers, who embrace different schools of thought. While their theological outlook may differ, never in the history of Islamic missionary service in the deep South have such differences turned to violence, much less massacre.
In the past six years of intense violence, there has been only one incident in which suspected insurgents carried out target killing inside a mosque. The place was a village mosque in Panare district of Pattani, and the victim was a Border Patrol Police officer. The gunman waited until he completed his prayers before he shot him at point blank range from behind.
The Ai Bayae massacre should not be compared to the Kru Se Mosque stand-off on April 28, 2004 when insurgents fortified themselves inside the historic mosque as they engaged in a lengthy gunfight with Thai security forces until they were overpowered and killed. Local Malays see their act as heroic, as they gave up their lives just to be heard. All were buried as Muslim martyrs. In this respect, a mosque being the main scene enhances their legitimacy as fighting for a just cause. The June 8 massacre didn't fit that bill. And so when the authorities suggested that the killings may have been the work of insurgents, nobody believed them, not even key security and administrative officials in this highly volatile region.
According to military and civilian officials monitoring the situation from the region, the June 8 massacre was a result of an intense tit-for-tat exchange of bombings and shootings between the insurgents and security units, with the help of pro-government death squads.
While murder has been an everyday occurrence since a January 2004 arms heist, the spate of violence that led to the Ai Bayae massacre was sparked by a court decision. The verdict cleared all security officials from any wrongdoing at the Tak Bai massacre in September 2004, when 78 unarmed Malay Muslim demonstrators died from suffocation. Security officials had stacked them one on top of another in the back of military transport trucks.
Immediately after the ruling, soft targets such as schools and restaurants that were off the militants' radar in the previous year, returned to the hit list. For the insurgency in the deep South, a new threshold had been crossed and the insurgents were not about to let the government forget about it.
For PM Abhisit Vejjajiva, the massacre was a setback in more ways than one. Besides driving a deeper wedge between the state and the Malay Muslim community, it threatened to derailed a peace process his government has been carrying out.
The so-called Geneva Process was jump-started by the government of Surayud Chulanont but was not continued by the following administrations of Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat, who were beset by vicious street protests. Abhisit set up a small steering committee made up of trusted MPs and officials from the National Security Council (NSC) to talk to the long-standing separatist groups in exile. These groups include the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) and various branches of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). The idea is to get these old guard to act as brokers between the government and the new generation of militants.
Things were moving along accordingly until the June 8 massacre. According to Pulo and BRN-Coordinate members, the militants on the ground demanded that the Thai authorities arrest the six gunmen in exchange for their endorsement of the peace process.
Essentially, the ball was in the government's court: Arrest the six and bring the peace process back on track. But to get officials to make the arrests wasn't going to be easy, especially when the gunmen were, according to various sources, including Human Rights Watch, members of a pro-government death squad.
Thus began some serious arm-twisting. Mug shots of the suspects were downloaded from the Interior Ministry's ID card databank and distributed around villages. Among the six was a Narathiwat Muslim who had been working as a spy for a local military task force.
According to an informed source, the police eventually detained five gunmen - the sixth had committed suicide, possibly out of fear of retribution - and their secret agent. But it was the military that stalled the due process that was supposed to proceed afterwards. Others said the suspects were kept in a "safe house" until all the stakeholders on the government side could figure out what to do.
The staged surrender of Suthirak stemmed from the enormous pressure from various stakeholders, including lawmakers from the region, who feared the inaction of the government could cost them politically. If the "staged" surrender of Suthirak pays off politically, the public could see more suspects being made public, according to a government source.
But the so-called "surrender" of Suthirak last week raised a new set of questions. Officials in the deep South wonder what is to be gained from it.
Pulo and BRN members said they are not hopeful that the surrender of Suthirak, one of the five supposedly detained, will bring the peace process back on track any time soon.
"The Thai authorities knew from the beginning that the longer they waited, the harder it would be to put the dialogue back on track," said a BRN-Coordinate member.
Moreover, said the BRN member, the juwae - a term he used to describe the new generation of militants - are not that interested in talking to the Thais anyway.
"The way they see it, they are winning. They can hit the Thai authorities more or less at will, at any time, in any place. Unless the government is willing to make some serious concessions, one can forget about seeing peace in the region any time soon."