As Thailand lurches from one political crisis to the next—whether over its Cambodian border, or closer to the capital where the Red and Yellow Shirts are going toe-to-toe—the separatist rebellion in the country’s south has largely escaped international attention. Its seventh anniversary passed quietly, with little mention.
But the lack of a media spotlight doesn’t mean the situation has calmed down. On Tuesday, a villager was shot dead in Pattani, with his death being blamed on insurgents. The incident followed Monday’s motorbike bomb, which killed one person and injured 16 in Yala; another 17 were hurt by a car bomb in Pattani on Sunday. Back in Yala, on February 13, 18 people were wounded by a car bomb. On February 3, five Buddhist villagers were gunned down outside a Pattani teashop.
And the fact is, February was just another month in southern Thailand.
For most of the past seven years, the authorities have preferred to dismiss the attacks as random acts of violence carried out by either bandits or a handful of disgruntled Islamic militants. But such attempts at playing down the carnage rankled Western governments. What they saw instead was another battleground in the global war on terrorism and Islamic militancy, with the conflict in southern Thailand seen as a persistent threat to regional security.
But whatever the view from abroad, it was five years before the Thai police admitted they had a separatist movement on their hands—a well-structured organization consisting of five related groups operating across four provinces—Songkhla, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat—where six million Muslims live. Still, actually identifying the leaders proved tricky, even though the National Revolutionary Front-Coordinate (BRN-C) can be traced back to the 1960s, and has held the highest profile among southern separatist movements.
Yet this is about more than just some obscure provincial groupings—there has also been evidence of links with al-Qaeda and regional terrorist outfits like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) (although this group is currently in decline). The evidence of this can be traced through a series of interviews believed to have been granted by the self-described leader of al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia, ‘Abu Ubaidah’ who had fits of talkativeness up until last year, but who has since gone quiet.
‘What’s happening in Pattani isn’t an internal conflict, some (fighters) come from the neighbouring country, some come from far away, many thousands of miles,’ he has said, while urging Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia to join his jihad.