Security forces claim a reduction in violence in the troubled region, but this belies a worsening reality
Counting the chickens before they hatch has always been a trait of Thai officials, especially when it comes to the ongoing violence in the deep South, where more than 3,000 people have been killed since January 2004.
Security officers say the controversial policy of placing poorly trained paramilitary rangers in villages in the region has paid off. Compared to 2007 when insurgents set fire to more than 100 public schools, this year has seen only about ten attacks, they said.
For months, we have been hearing how the drop in the overall number of violent incidents in the Malay-speaking region is due to the hard work of security officials. While there may be a grain of truth to the claim, it is too premature to pat ourselves on the back, much less declare this development a policy success. For one thing, Thailand's handling of the Muslim majority isn't based on much of a policy but more of an attitude - an outdated one that needs to be replaced at that.
In previous years, the figures for "violent incidents" appeared high because the authorities counted everything - from the burning of tyres and telephone booths to point-blank shootings of local officials, as well as roadside bomb attacks against soldiers on patrol.
The burning of tyres and telephone booths has fallen off, but roadside ambushes, not to mention daily drive-by shootings have not disappeared.
One set of statistics that have enabled security planners to praise themselves is the sharp drop in the number of attacks on schools in remote villages where most, if not all of the students, are Malay Muslims. Apparently, it didn't cross their minds that by placing rangers on school grounds, they put children in the line of fire.
A more honest assessment from officials at the local level is that the drop in arson attacks is a combination of the presence of the rangers, as well as the fact that support (for the insurgents) from the villagers, especially concerned parents, was waning. Many local villagers, with a historical mistrust of the Thai State, say a government education is better than no education. But getting them over to the side of the State, so they might identify insurgents in their community, on the other hand, remains unlikely.
For many locals, the violence, regardless of its brutality, is part of the conflict between the Malays of Patani and the unwelcome Thai State, not the work of young men with twisted ideologies.
The decline in the overall number of incidents doesn't mean much if the insurgents' capability is still intact and they are capable of carrying out the kind of attacks seen yesterday, regardless of the low-profile nature of the target.
The government has become complacent over this past year as attacks became more intermittent. However, the level of uncertainty and insecurity is still very high. More importantly, Thai officials have to see the violence as part of a historical conflict instead of clinging to their false belief that the insurgents are simply a bunch of fanatics. It is a question of legitimacy in the Malay homeland.
The simultaneous bombs yesterday in Narathiwat's remote Sukirin district were a reminder that peace is nowhere in sight. One woman died and more than 70 people were injured in the attacks. If anything, it is an indication of how bad the situation has become.
Most of the 3,000-plus victims so far have been local Malay Muslims. Many were killed because they were alleged to be spying for the security forces, others died at the hands of the Thai armed forces in shoot-outs or were singled out by security officials. But the fact that some victims of yesterday's attacks, as well as other high profile bombing incidents, were Muslims illustrates the fact that collateral damage has become acceptable to the insurgents.
Killing a fellow Muslim for spying is one thing. But treating fellow Muslims as collateral damage is another matter entirely. If this tells us anything, it is that the violence is getting worse.