Insurgents strike fear into hearts and minds

The brutal killing of a vanload of nine innocent civilians, including three women and a girl, by southern insurgents should finally be the wake-up call to the political leadership that the insurgency in southern Thailand has got out of control.


Though suspects have been arrested, the attack was reminiscent of the savagery of Algeria, and portends a bloody year in the restive South. The attack was the latest in a string of more audacious and provocative attacks from Muslim insurgents. The attack also came days before the sixth-month anniversary of the September 19, 2006 coup. While the justification and rationale for the coup is still debated, all placed hope in the Council for National Security and the government's ability to stem the violence. 


Yet, the exact opposite has been true: the daily average rate of killing has more than tripled in the past six months, from 1.6 people a day in 2006 to almost four per day. Over 400 people, roughly 19 per cent of the 2,100 people killed since January 2004, have died since the coup. Attacks have become more sophisticated and coordinated. Sadly the junta leaders remain oblivious to the reality on the ground and show precious little resolve in dealing with the insurgency; they remain mired in petty political squabbles in Bangkok and blind to the reports from their field commanders.


Over three years into the insurgency, there remains an appalling lack of understanding of the motives behind it. Government forces have arrested more than 1,700 people, but that has led to little actionable intelligence, demonstrating that the arrested are either innocents, or if indeed insurgents, that they are highly compartmentalised.  No leaders have been arrested and the recent taking of a training camp and killing of five militants in Narathiwat was a rare victory. Militants are able to strike at will.


While no group has taken credit for any attack, nor publicly stated their demands, this is not a bunch of nihilistic youths. This is a highly organised, though cellular, movement, with clear command and control. The Barisan Revolusi Nasional Coordinasi and the Gerakan Mujihidin Islamiyah Pattani are able to execute coordinated attacks, simultaneously, across four provinces on a regular basis. Thai Muslim insurgents have never been more disciplined and united.


Their ideology has also never been so Islamist.  The insurgents today are fundamentally different than previous generations. In addition to the broadened targeting of women, children, monks and the de facto ethnic cleansing that has transpired, the Islamist agenda is manifest in other ways. They are not out to win hearts and minds: they are thuggish and brutal and are imposing their values on the community. Over 50 per cent of their victims have been fellow Muslims. They have a broadened their definition of collaborator to include Muslims who reject militant values and seek accommodation with the Thai state. They have killed moderate clerics and warned others to not perform funerals for the Muslims they kill and deem not to be real Muslims, the Wahhabi practice of "takfiri". They have shuttered businesses on Fridays and killed Islamic teachers who teach at schools that receive government funding and teach mixed curricula.


Insurgents have set up parallel systems in the villages to force people to opt out of the state system. They have established private Islamic schools - often the only alternative when their arson attacks and murder of almost 70 teachers shut down state schools. Ad hoc Sharia courts are now the primary means of dispute adjudication. Insurgents have begun forcing women to not give birth in hospitals, which is a tragedy for the health of women and infants. And by not registering the births, the children are ineligible to attend government schools or receive healthcare coverage. These policies are meant to impose a rigid set of ideological and religious values, not win hearts and minds. Yet, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, like so many, still refuses to acknowledge that this insurgency has a clear Islamist agenda. 


Likewise, many leaders, as well as the ill-fated National Reconciliation Council, still do not acknowledge the secessionist aims of the insurgents. They too, misunderstand the insurgents' short-term goals of making the region ungovernable, provoking heavy-handed government responses, causing a greater rift and mistrust between the local population and the state, imposing their Islamist agenda, and silencing/co-opting potential political competitors in the Muslim community.


Talks and interviews with managers from different security services all make clear that the national leadership is not committed to dedicating the resources needed to resolving the crisis. General Waipot, the chief of the National Intelligence Agency, was recently sacked not just for his inability to improve intelligence on the ground, but for publicly questioning the leadership's resolve in dealing with the crisis in the South.

Zachary Abuza


Special to The Nation

Zachary Abuza is professor of political science at Simmons College, Boston, where he teaches Southeast Asian politics and security. He is the author of the forthcoming book on the insurgency, "Conspiracy of Silence".

This is the first of a two-part series.