South militancy has been years in making
Published on May 30, 2006 - In early 2002, amid a series of coordinated precision attacks on remote security outposts in the three southernmost provinces, suggesting that a new generation of separatists could be in the making would have drawn a heated rebuttal.
The political elite in and outside the region, security officials and community leaders would have sworn up and down that separatism in this Malay-speaking region was dead and gone.
Their leaders are in Sweden and their field commanders have opted to run tom yum restaurants in Malaysia, they would say.
While the government's blanket amnesty had effectively crippled the military wings of the traditional separatist groups, what the policy planners and intelligence community failed to detect was that an entirely new breed of insurgents began to emerge almost immediately after the previous generation put down their guns.
Although there were signs that the new generation had surfaced as far back as late 2001, it was not until the January 4, 2004 raid on an Army base that Bangkok would admit it had a serious problem on its hands.
The traditional theory that violence in the region was cooked up by people with vested interests who hired "pathetic bandits" to do their dirty work quickly took the back seat.
Speaking to reporters over the weekend, Fourth Army commander Lt-General Ongkorn Thongprasom said about 100 of the 1,520 villages in the region had been deeply infiltrated by militants.
Ongkorn pointed out the depth of the infiltration, saying villagers appeared to be at the militants' disposal and women had also been included in the movement. He ordered intelligence units to assess why the insurgents had managed to gain so much ground.
Judging from the fact that about 1,200 people have been killed since January 2004, Ongkorn's estimation was absurdly understated and his order several years late.
From 2001 to the January 2004 raid, in which insurgents made off with well over 300 weapons, state agencies sat idly by as political leaders in Bangkok dismissed the political underpinning of these attacks.
Even in the short period between late 2001 and the first three months of 2002, during which at least eight police officers were shot dead by snipers in a series of coordinated attacks, it hardly crossed anybody's mind that the shooters could be other than "pathetic bandits". Many of these attackers were using AK-47s, firing from considerable distance and hitting targets, or coming close, in poorly lit areas. Even lower-ranked officers on the ground admitted that these guys knew what they were doing.
The failure to detect that a new generation of insurgents was in the making not only reflects poorly on the intelligence community, but shows a serious need for capacity building. Essentially, the community has found itself in a catch-up game that appears to push it deeper into a hole.
Besides being complacent and poorly trained, the community didn't have the backing of the political leaders in Bangkok, who often viewed intelligence as a convenient tool.
"There was no real effort to bring ethnic Malays into the intelligence community when things were quiet for nearly a decade," said a senior Army intelligence officer. "Even today, we don't seem to be operating under a common agenda as each agency does its own thing," he added.
Unlike previous generations, today's militants are not men with PhDs or people who give a hoot about social norms or what constitutes legitimate targets.
EOder Buddhist or Muslim villagers who lived through the gunfights of the previous decades would often boast about how they were able to negotiate their way out of paying protection money to the BRN or the Communist Party of Malaya.
Today's militants, on the other hand, are not interested in negotiation, or winning sympathy from anyone. The merciless beating of two women teachers that nearly implicated the entire village in which they lived was a case in point.
What's scary about all of this, say security officials, is that this generation of militants had been in the making for nearly a decade before they surfaced in late 2001. Judging from the amount of time invested, it appears that they are here for the long haul.
Because the militants are not organised in any real structure, there is no "inner circle" for anybody to penetrate or deal with. Without a central command, cell members on the ground take it upon themselves to decide what constitutes a legitimate target or what kind of action is acceptable.
But in Bangkok's policy-making circles, debate is still very much centred on which projects will win the hearts and minds of the local Malay Muslims, as well as how to make them more "Thai".
And two years on, these policy-makers are still scratching their heads as to why the level of distrust between the Malay-speaking community and the state is as high as ever - not to mention why so few Malays, given the high number of attacks, have come forward with information.