Security on the main streets of Hat Yai, Thailand, is heavy. Here, soldiers patrol in pairs, checking for the suspicious, chatting with local shopkeepers and hoping for a quiet day.
It’s a scene that is familiar across Southern Thailand, particularly in the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat where an insurgency blamed on local Malay Muslims has again flared.
Massive car bombings here and in Yala at the end of March, and further attacks in April, claimed 84 lives and injured hundreds more, while strikes that include assassinations and suicide bombings on a smaller scale are now part and parcel of life in the south. Indeed, attacks are so routine that they may not even make the national newspapers.
Four local government officials were assassinated in early May while travelling by car in Pattani when gunmen in a pickup truck opened fire with AK-47 and M16 assault rifles. Another 17 people, including 10 female paramilitary troops, were injured in a mid-May roadside bombing while on their way back from guard duties at an annual fair in Pattani. Few seemed to notice.
The death toll has continued to mount, with more than 5,000 lives lost since the insurgency erupted in January 2004. The prognosis isn’t good, and differs radically from insurgencies spearheaded by Islamic militants elsewhere in the world, particularly in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, strikes on New York and Washington DC by al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has been dead for more than a year, while the trial for the last of the Bali bombers, Umar Patek of the now defunct Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) outfit, is all but finished with a verdict due out shortly, marking the final end of a bloody era of Islamic militancy in Southeast Asian history. Yet the problems in southern Thailand persist.
“There’s clearly a strong commitment at grassroots level within the southern provinces to end the domination of the area by the Thais, with their very different ethnic, linguistic and religious roots,” says Keith Loveard, a regional security analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Consulting. “Until such time as Bangkok recognizes that it has to provide some degree of realistic autonomy, there’s no reason why the violence will abate.”
A victory by Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai Party at last year’s general elections had raised the prospect that meaningful talks on separatist issues in the south might gain some traction despite a long standing contempt for her brother and former leader Thaksin Shinawatra among the local population.
From the onset of the rebellion, Thaksin – ousted from power in September 2006 by a military coup – had retaliated with a harsh but ham-fisted crackdown after an initial raid in Narathiwat in early 2004 in which gunmen made off with a cache of stolen weapons.
The violence quickly escalated.
Hundreds of incidents have followed, but two, also in 2004, took local hatred of Buddhist Bangkok to an unsurpassed level. In April of that year, 32 gunmen retreated into the 425-year-old Krue Se Mosque in Pattani after staging a series of attacks on police outposts across the south. After a seven-hour stand-off, Gen. Panlop Pinmanee disobeyed orders and launched an all-out assault on the mosque, the holiest in Pattani. All were killed.
Six months later, 78 men died of suffocation following a demonstration and tensions have simmered ever since.
The rebellion had taken a lead from the rise of Islamic militancy and terror attacks across the world that followed 9/11 and the October 12, 2002, Bali bombings by JI. But the Thai rebellion was largely classified as a local separatist insurgency.
On June 15, 2006, during the 60th anniversary celebrations for the accession of King Bhumibol Adulyadej to the throne, some 40 government buildings were bombed, resulting in two deaths. The bombs were many and the death toll surprisingly low. The bombs reportedly contained just a small amount of explosives, prompting analysts to suggest that they were designed more to send a message to authorities than to cause widespread carnage.
Then in November 2006 – two months after Thaksin was ousted – Wan Kadir Che Wan leader of Bersatu, an umbrella organization for a myriad of southern separatist groups, announced that JI was helping local insurgents stage attacks in Thailand.
That declaration took the fight in the south to another level, which went largely ignored in Bangkok by successive governments as political convulsions bought on by clashes between the largely rural-based Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts of the mainly urban middle classes monopolized national attention.
Gavin Greenwood, a risk assessment analyst with Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates, says Thai authorities have ignored the south at their peril, and the end of March bombings targeting Thai and ethnic Chinese business interests signaled another new phase in the southern insurgency.
“The attacks demonstrated capacity and ruthlessness,” he says, adding that Thai security forces and government agencies are divided by a multitude of differing loyalties, animosities and agendas and have been “exceptionally inept in their efforts” to manage or contain the insurgency – let alone bring the insurgency under control.
“This failure to either exert leverage on the insurgents through the use of force or the Thai government’s seeming inability to negotiate a settlement may well have led the separatists to conclude that they must step up pressure if they are to even begin the process of gaining a degree of autonomy.”
His sentiments are supported by Loveard, who adds that only Bangkok has the power to find a solution that will require some form of regional autonomy for the southern provinces, considered an anathema by many forces in the capital, in particular the military.
Like the bombs detonated during the monarch’s anniversary in 2006, the March attacks could signal a change in strategy and a shift from Thai school teachers, Chinese business interest and poorly equipped rangers who have borne the brunt of the strikes since 2004 alongside local Muslims, whose deaths are seen more as collateral damage by the shadowy insurgents.
The southern way of life has changed remarkably since January 2004 as is evident on the streets of Hat Yai, a provincial town of about 160,000 people where security is tight, queues form and delays are inevitable as security guards check suspicious cars. Parts of town are fenced off by intimidating soldiers; the streets are quiet at night.
The scene is reminiscent of Belfast in the early 1980s.
“What may come next is a direct attack on key economic targets close to the southern Muslim majority provinces,” Greenwood says. “It would take very little effort to extend the present campaign into such tourist-dependent regions as the area around Phuket.”
“Foreign, Western or East Asian casualties, would instantly internationalize the insurgency, cause an immediate fall in tourist revenue and profoundly embarrass the government,” he adds.
“This has presumably long remained the ‘nuclear option’ for the insurgents and the Yala attacks – which by early-June hadn’t been repeated – may well have served a reminder of what such a attack could look like at a busy beach resort at the height of the tourist season.”
If such a tragic scenario unfolds then the era of terrorism in Southeast Asia as defined by the first decade of the 21st century may not be over as many, including this author, would like to think. Instead, it would simply have shifted – and in places like Hat Yai – that’s not what anybody wants to hear.