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From June this year, Thailand's security forces in the country's troubled Muslim-majority border provinces have launched a concerted series of sweeps on villages and sub-districts with results that suggest that the authorities are finally making inroads into the complex network-based insurgency that has wracked the region from the beginning of 2004. The prime minister, together with military and intelligence officials, claim that the situation now shows signs of "improvement". For the government and its security forces the increasing number of captured insurgents represents a change from months of bad news that spiked in mid-March with the callous murder by militants of seven Thai Buddhist civilians while they were traveling in a mini-bus from Betong to Hat Yai city. The period to mid-2007 witnessed a continuance of insurgent violence, including beheadings and burning of civilians and soldiers, major bombings of police and army vehicles, the torching of schools, the killing of school teachers and the dramatic derailment of a train in Pattani Province.
The recent spate of counter-insurgency operations come under the rubric of the "The Strategy for Defending the Southern Border." The operations have been promoted by General Sonthi Bunyaratkalin, supreme commander of Thailand's armed forces, head of the Council for National Security, and leader of the September 2006 coup that ousted the Thaksin Shinawatra government. The strategy of targeted blockades and searches has been in the making for some time, and is based on the cumulative collation of local intelligence, together with forensic and ballistics data that identifies culprits and suspects. Through this campaign, security forces aim both to directly reduce the frequency and intensity of attacks and also expand the net of intelligence about leading militant cadre by progressive interrogation of captured suspects. The security sweeps represent the harder enforcement edge of a broad-based policy that stresses "reconciliation," educational and development efforts.
The campaign began in earnest on 20 June with a three-day blockade and search in villages of the notorious insurgent stronghold of Bannang-Satta District of Yala Province. As a result, twenty-two suspects were arrested, with seven of them found to be ranking members of the Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK), the common name for a second-tier guerrilla attack force operating within and across districts (highly-trained and mobile "commandos" are first-tier main force units, with villagers the third tier, providing locally-based logistic, propaganda and intelligence support). Over the following week, more than sixty further suspects (found in possession of stolen guns, bomb-making equipment, and military and police uniforms) were detained following sweeps in Narathiwat and Yala. A highlight of early July was the arrest of seven suspected bombers at the Islamburapha religious school in Narathiwat. Arrest warrants had already been issued for these men for involvement in earlier incidents. Police seized 108 pieces of evidence from the school grounds, and the school was declared closed within three days. Notably, these arrests were not followed by organised protests, an established pattern until now.
In late July the authorities continued to make progress, capturing four suspects implicated in the Betong bus shootings. In their most successful single day, on 29 July, 500 soldiers and police raided Yingo district of Narathiwat and made fifty-three arrests, including a key leader of the RKK. By this time a total of 1,930 insurgent suspects had been detained. Of those suspects arrested, about 300 are leading insurgents who have supervised and staged attacks. Commenting on these developments, the Fourth Army spokesman Colonel Akkara Thiprot said: "the latest crackdown met with little resistance and there were also no protests from suspects' relatives," highlighting that more people were now cooperating with the authorities. It certainly appears that more Malay Muslim villagers are now willing to act as intelligence sources for officials because they resent the daily intimidation imposed on them by insurgent networks, though not all Muslims interpret the cause of the disruption in this light. Malay Muslim informants, however, face acute danger of elimination by insurgents, and fear still pervades Muslim communities. Officials point to much-improved coordination among security forces as another factor enhancing information gathering.
There have been criticisms of the security sweeps among some rights groups, with predictable claims that authorities have detained suspects with little evidence. However, there has been a concerted effort to pursue "reconciliation" policy, and those detainees who are not identified as killers are released or taken on training courses. Relatives are encouraged to visit detained suspects at army camps, while they also often accompany captives to interrogation centers. Notwithstanding the new campaign and its results, militant attacks have continued throughout the last months, showing how flexible and embedded are the insurgents resources. Although there has been a reduction in major bomb attacks and assaults on military patrols, insurgents have turned towards softer targets, as exemplified in the daylight killing of two Thai Buddhist health center officials in Yarang District of Pattani Province on 8 August, and a renewed burst of school burnings across four provinces. In the "red districts" and beyond, insurgents continue to affirm the legitimacy of their attacks through propaganda in the form of leaflets, slogans paint-sprayed onto roads, and carefully spread rumor through the ubiquitous village tea houses, claiming that the military are capturing innocent people, raping women, and planting false evidence. Meanwhile the much-lauded possibility of negotiation faces considerable difficulties given the structure of the current insurgent groups and the elusiveness of key leaders (despite two secret meetings of Thai officials with some intermediaries in Kelantan earlier in the year). At this stage the end of the violence is not in sight, and most borderland villagers do not see that much has changed for the better.
WATCHPOINT: How effective are Thailand's current counter-insurgency efforts in reducing the violence in the deep south and what are the possibilities that the Thai authorities will be able to engage in negotiations with the insurgent groups?
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