No end in sight to violence in south
Published on Nov 09, 2006
- Exiled separatist leaders face uphill task as new generation cold-shoulders PM's plea
After five hours of tense negotiations with some 300 angry villagers in Yala's Bannang Sata district, the soldiers were understandably relieved, even though the villagers had succeeded in their demands to get a local ranger unit to vacate a school they had been using as a temporary base.
What they did not realise was a bigger challenge awaited them just a few kilometres down the road. A powerful roadside bomb hit their military convoy, killing two soldiers and wounding three others.
Not only was the incident a testimony that no one could afford to let their guard down, it also reflected the complexity of the problem that the government of Premier Surayud Chulanont is trying desperately to untangle.
On the one hand are the separatist groups that surfaced in the late 1960s, who continued to keep a shadowy network intact even after a blanket amnesty programme crippled their military wings a little over a decade ago.
On the other is a new generation of village-based militants who are organised into a cluster of cells and operate independently with no executive council to direct them.
These juwae, or "fighters" in local Malay dialect, decide for themselves what to hit and when. Every now and then, they carry out coordinated attacks - some times at up to 100 locations simultaneously. They are scattered across the Malay-speaking provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, and in four districts in Songkhla.
By basing themselves in the vicinity of their target sites, the militants can avoid worrying about being chased down or having to engage in lengthy firefights with Thai security forces. After the roadside bombings, followed by brief exchange of gunfire, a juwae can easily melt back into the daily chores - tapping rubber, rice farming, etc.
Cell members are said to be very disciplined, partly due to an oath they take upon joining. They have proven to be exceptional at generating a simple but vicious PR machine that pits their community against the state apparatus.
Surayud's apology and gesture of goodwill, although largely welcomed by both Buddhists and Muslims, has been cold-shouldered by the juwae who show no interest in talking or making any deals.
Leaders of the old separatist groups are currently living in exile in Malaysia and Western Europe and have been engaged in secret dialogue with the Thai authorities on the Malaysian island of Langkawi.
But these leaders, as well as the Thai government, all agree that this is as far as Malaysia will go because no one trusts Malaysia to be an honest broker.
"We don't want them to be sitting in on matters we consider to be an affair of the Thai people," the officer said.
Some of the exiled leaders have suggested they would like to see Western mediators but Thai officials said they are uncomfortable with the idea. They are concerned that any talks would quickly evolve into a cut and thrust process where two opposing forces are pitted against each other.
A senior National Security Council official dealing with these exiled leaders described their work as an "enormous task" that must be handled with great sensitivity.
But what is of concern to many officers is the uncompromising attitude of some of the exiled members and leaders.
Indeed, there is the possibility of a fall-out among the separatist leaders, especially if any one cuts a separate deal with the Thai government.
Thai intelligence officers say the hardliners within the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) - one of the biggest movements of all the traditional separatist organisations - has decided to sit out of the Langkawi talks.
It is not clear whether they are taking a wait-and-see attitude towards the whole idea or that the very idea of making concessions to the Thai state is not in their vocabulary.
Pattani-Malay exiles who took part in the talks complain they had little choice but to go to Langkawi - but were uncomfortable the forum was organised by former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad.
Many old guards are still bitter that Mahathir handed over three leading Pulo commanders - Isma-ae and Da-oh Thanam and Abdul Rahman Bazo in January 1998 -to Thai officials even though a dialogue was being carried out with Pulo members in the Middle East at the time.
Since Surayud's visit to Kuala Lumpur, his men have been quick to point out that he has been assured by his Malaysian counterpart Abdullah Badawi that they will do their utmost to bring peace to the restive Muslim-majority region.
But how far Abdullah is willing to go no one will say.
It remains to be seen if the Malaysian premier will push the BRN towards a dialogue, or keep his distance from the group.
As things stand, there are doubts about the extent to which these exiled leaders can influence the juwae on the ground. Although the BRN may have a hand in laying the foundation for the indoctrination process that produced these juwae, few doubt if this old group, or indeed any other group, can have any influence over the behaviour and conduct of the current group of fighters.
If anything, the juwae's methodology and brutality are indications that they have taken on a life of their own.
"They don't fight us the same way as the previous generation of separatists," said one Army colonel who requested anonymity.
"They won't surface and take credit for anything."
From the look of things on the ground, perhaps they don't want to surface. After all, they are getting away with just about everything, including murder.