Southern Thai rebels keen to keep control

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 April, 2007, 12:00am

One of the most chilling and unusual aspects of the southern Thailand Islamic insurgency is its lack of a face or a name. Not only do the Thai authorities not know precisely who is behind the escalating campaign of violence amid all the shadowy groups, they also do not know what they want.

No one has stepped forward to claim responsibility for the broader insurgency that has killed more than 2,000 people in three years, nor reveal any political or specific separatist goals for a region once part of the ancient Islamic Kingdom of Pattani.

Most analysts believe they are trying to impose an Islamic social agenda, driving out ethnic Thai and Chinese Buddhists and Muslims connected to the government.

With a lack of hard information, it may be tempting for some to overlay foreign motives, linking the daily toll of beheadings, bombings, arson and shootings to foreign networks such as al-Qaeda or their Southeast Asian jihadist brethren, the Jemaah Islamiah.

While the foreigners moving in would rightly be seen as an explosive development, it risks missing the point: even without hard evidence of direct foreign involvement, the insurgency is worthy of much greater attention. It is easily the most intense and sustained violence in the region, no less dangerous for being locally inspired and managed.

As an estimated 80,000 Thai military and police struggle to stem the deaths across the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, there is a sense across the south that the situation is out of control and that it will only get far worse before it gets better. Even before sundown, streets empty and shops close in towns and villages as people race home to lock themselves safely in their houses with their families.

No one ever feels really safe, given the insurgents' hit-and-run tactics such as drive-by assassinations, grenade attacks and the beheading of rubber tappers on pre-dawn shifts in plantations.

Rather than single big dramatic strikes and large loss of life, they prefer small-scale but persistent activity, often co-ordinated across provincial borders. The drip-drip-drip of daily bloodshed is just as effective, as teachers flee and local businessmen consider their futures. Fresh foreign investment in the provinces, among Thailand's poorest, is a pipe dream.

It is a textbook guerilla campaign, right down to the apparent existence of a tight leadership grouping protected by a web of three-man cells that allows organisational information to flow but secrets to be contained. Like a lot of southern watchers, Thai security analyst Brian Dougherty, Indochina general manager of security firm Hill and Associates based in Hong Kong, has looked hard for firm signs of a foreign-run operation.

'It is certainly the worst case of insurgency in the region,' he said. 'But it is still driven locally ... the militants want this to be their programme.'

He adds that they were aware of their shortcomings and had asked for 'bits and pieces' of assistance.

Mr Dougherty said the militants had accepted training from Indonesians, Malaysians and Cambodians, who had also delivered medicine. Funding also had flowed from Saudi Arabia and via Pakistani carpet sellers visiting Bangkok.

Some analysts note that the insurgency has proven relatively inexpensive. They are still using some of the 400 weapons obtained in a raid on an army depot in January 2004 and their bombs are made from relatively simple ingredients, detonated by phones.

Mr Dougherty said he believed some of the core leadership were trained during the Muslim-led insurgency against the occupation of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union but they remain committed to keeping it local.

'They have shunned outsiders from trying to control the violence or the movement,' he said.