Shadowy insurgents in Thai south not trying to win hearts and minds
'We just don't know who they are and we don't know what they want.' Talk to Buddhists and Muslims living daily with the threat of an Islamist insurgency in Thailand's deep south and that phrase becomes a mantra. You hear it from community leaders, teachers and market traders in the towns and from villagers in the humble fishing communities on the coast.
As the insurgents enter their fourth year of terrorism apparently stronger and more violent than ever, their precise goals remain largely hidden despite the killing of an estimated 2,000 people in bombings, shootings, arson and beheadings. They have never emerged to claim responsibility or state their goals, unlike earlier southern separatist movements.
That uncertainty only breeds fear in the hot shadows of the south. 'It is all any of us talks about,' said one gold trader. Most think the insurgents are winning, despite the more proactive policies of Thailand's new military installed government. The daily death toll has risen to about five people every two days in the wake of September's coup.
For many, the blitz of attacks on ethnic Chinese residents and businesses at Lunar New Year provides a window into their goals - the collapse of the southern economy, driving out Buddhists and a complete rejection of recognised government authority. It represented an escalation in a campaign previously targeting government-funded schools, institutions and temples.
In the torching of the Southland Rubber Company's warehouse outside Yala shortly after Lunar New Year they made their biggest economic strike yet. Some 5,000 tonnes of rubber burned for several days in a blaze visible for kilometres around, with a value estimated at US$11.8 million. It represented 10 per cent of the south's monthly rubber output - one of its few core industries.
Rubber prices have been rising but the south's output has been slashed in half as rubber tappers, many of them Muslim, flee plantations amid regular reports of shootings and beheadings.
One of the latest victims was Pin Khotchathin, 38. His severed head was found in a Yala plantation shortly after dawn on January 15. His wife's body lay nearby, shot in the head. A note was found by Pin's head warning of more killings if Buddhists did not leave the area.
The three southern provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, the remnants of an ancient Islamic state, are majority Muslim in a proudly Buddhist nation. Despite decades of government action, they remain far poorer than most Thais. Unemployment is 30 per cent in some areas and rising, compared to the 12 per cent national average.
'This is a depressed area to start with, so they [the insurgents] are really making an impact on the economy,' said prominent ethnic Chinese businessman Anusart Suwanmongkol, owner of the area's biggest hotel and an extensive car dealership chain. 'We are all hurting ... it is not just rubber, but all the services. It is not just fear that is driving people away, but basic economics. People are being forced to find their livelihoods elsewhere.'
Tourists from Malaysia, Singapore and Bangkok were absent from the annual Lim Ko Niaw temple festival in Pattani at the weekend. Local Chinese ignored security threats to turn up in their hundreds, saying they were determined to defy the insurgents.
'Once we would have had 150 tourist buses ... this year we had about 10,' Mr Anusart said. 'I cannot see it getting much better in the short term.'
Mr Anusart said the insurgents appeared to favour isolated targets on roads surrounded by jungle and plantations. Many larger, more obvious commercial sites, such as his hotel, had been ignored.
'Their decisions are not just based on ethnic grounds ... it is what they can get away with. It is all about location as much as anything.'
Terrorism scholar Zachary Abuza said the latest targets fitted into a wider trend of destroying the social and economic fabric of the south, noting that more than half of the casualties have been Muslims, often linked to the community or government in some way.
'The insurgents are not fighting a Maoist struggle and trying to win hearts and minds; they seem to have little concern about garnering popular support. They have a clear Islamist social agenda they are slowly implementing.'
A variety of government and private sources said Thai intelligence services knew the identity of a handful of ringleaders, saying they were linked to known local radical groupings.
Tracking them down was another matter, as they kept information and planning to a strict three-level organisational structure that meant the young men carrying out operations new nothing of the greater operation. Provincial leaders had authority but worked in loosely tandem for an overall goal.
A three-man cell structure was in place, allowing flexibility and co-ordination. It also exposed spies.
No single source of funding has emerged and experts note that while their bombs are getting larger - some nearing 50kg - they remain relatively simple and cheap. They are usually detonated with mobile phones.
Professor Abuza, a Thai-based scholar at Boston's Simmons University, said the movement's extreme secrecy of intent and organisation had been used to great advantage. It was probably very small.
'If the government could arrest the right 100 people or so, it could end this thing once and for all.'