Harsh realities mar peace efforts in South
Published on May 16, 2007
- Even by local standards, the scene on a back road deep in the heart of the Muslim-majority South last Wednesday was bleak.
Bodies of seven Special Forces soldiers were scattered over the narrow back road in Narathiwat's Rangae district. Two soldiers were stuck in the cab of the pickup truck, which had flipped over, while another soldier was tossed several metres into a wooded area.
All were shot at point blank range - a damning statement from the militants to Thai authorities that they mean business regardless of the gestures of goodwill from the Bangkok government.
Two days later in the same district, two policemen were shot dead and their bodies burned beyond recognition. Police said the two attacks were carried out by the same militant cell responsible for killing the seven Special Forces soldiers.
Like other militant attacks in the restive region, the insurgents carry out their deadly strikes and then quickly blend into their villages.
Reinforcement units are often too slow, while hot pursuit is virtually non-existent in this restive region. The latest wave of the insurgency has so far claimed more than 2,100 lives since January 2004.
The immediate task, said the Fourth Army Area's chief-of-staff Major-General Chamlong Khunsong, is to send authorities back to Ban Bangor for a public consultation to "create an understanding. "We must try to bring the local community to our side or else we risk losing them to the militants," Chamlong said.
Security officials say the policy of reconciliation through peaceful means is slow and daunting, as historical mistrust between the Malay-speaking residents and the state continues to hamper efforts to win hearts and minds.
No one seems to know where the next attack will come from, which has made mapping out so-called "red areas" almost meaningless.
Attacks against security units have been a daily occurrence as the battleground has shifted from remote areas to towns and villages since this latest wave of violence flared three years ago.
The fabric of society which once held Buddhists and Muslims together has been effectively torn apart, as the scope of victims has expanded from security officials to civilians, including teachers, monks and non-security personnel.
Muslims and Buddhists who lived through the battle fought between the previous generation of Malay separatist groups and government forces didn't see themselves as being stuck in the middle of a vicious crossfire.
In fact, in areas that were not accessible by government officials, groups such as the Patani United Liberation Organisation or the Barisan Revolusi Nasional encouraged social functions and activities as a way to make day-to-day life as normal as possible for the local community.
But in the late 1980s the armed wings of the longstanding Malay separatist groups became exhausted and fell apart following the government's blanket amnesty programme.
However, Bangkok mistook the absence of violence for permanent peace and an end to Malay nationalist sentiment. No one suspected that a new generation of separatists and insurgents was in the making. For much of their early lives, these young militants, locally referred to as juwae, or fighter in the local Malay dialect, told themselves that they needed to take back their homeland from the "invading Siamese". And when they came of age, one by one, village-based cells began to emerge organically under an umbrella of a loose network scattered through out the region.
While the previous generation of fighters positioned themselves in remote hills and launched conventional attacks, today's militants don't have to go far from their homes to carry out strikes.
And because they are not organised according to any recognisable structure, taking down one cell does not necessarily mean a major breakthrough for authorities, as a similar cell could still be operating in the next district or tambon.
During his recent visit to the region, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said the government had received "positive feedback" from the insurgents over dialogue.
A senior officer from the Fourth Army Area said the positive signals had come from both members of the longstanding groups in exile, as well as militant cells on the ground.
"Some cell members feel their struggle has no end in sight and have begun to question the whole idea behind daily attacks. They don't see an end game," he said.
But a formal dialogue, or negotiations is far off possibility. Military officers on the ground said there was no guarantee that dialogue with one militant cell would resonate with others, given the fact that the current generation of insurgents is extremely organic. And in spite of this "positive feedback", the scene from Rangae district continues to serve as a grim reminder that a lasting peace is still a long way off.