Thailand: Who Are The Hands Behind Thailand's Southern Insurgency?


Joseph Chinyong Liow

Against a backdrop of unrelenting attacks on civilians and security personnel, Thai authorities claim to have uncovered the organisation responsible for the string of violence that has already claimed more than 500 lives in southern Thailand. Investigations have led security forces to Sapa-ing Basoe, principal of the Thammachat Witthaya Foundation School in Yala province. Sapa-ing is alleged to be head of BRN-Coordinate, known to be the political arm of the traditional BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional or National Revolutionary Front) separatist organisation, and to have recruited numerous Malay-Muslim students for a separatist movement that has undergone a revival in recent years.

While the existence of some sort of central command structure orchestrating the violence in the south might imply easier tactical operations for Thai counter-insurgency strategy, evidence indicates that the threat may be more disparate than Thai security forces would like to believe. Rather than a centralised phenomenon, it appears that militant resistance consists of several groups working at the same time, but independent of each other, to capitalise on the atmosphere of lawlessness as well as weak intelligence and security structures in the south in order to undermine Bangkok's authority in the provinces. There are several reasons why this is likely to be the scenario confronting the Thai government.

First, major incidences of violence appear to be regional in nature. For instance, the riots in Tak Bai, which led to the deaths of 78 Muslims in military/police custody, was a security problem only in Narathiwat, and despite government claims of an elaborately orchestrated agenda those involved essentially came from nearby townships and villages. Similarly, the violence of 28 April, which culminated with the massacre at Krue Se Mosque, involved residents of Pattani, Yala, and Songkhla. Conspicuously, the violence did not spill over into Narathiwat, even though the latter is arguably the most volatile of the southern provinces.

Second, the notable variation in targets and tactics also suggest the existence of different psychological and tactical objectives on the part of the perpetrators of violence. Traditionally, targets have largely been security personnel and installations. This was integral to the separatist strategy of undermining the presence and influence of the central state in the southern provinces. While this logic to target selection remains, at the same time softer targets, in particular civilians have come under attack by insurgents. Moreover, while the standard tactical operation, which usually involves drive-by shootings or the detonation of low-yield explosives, often appears carefully calibrated to ensure a minimal loss of life, over the past year the south has witnessed several deviations from this norm. In particular, 28 April witnessed a large-scale offensive operation by militants that resulted in the loss of more than 100 lives. So striking was its departure from tradition that the attacks not only took government officials by surprise, but many of the traditional separatist movements as well. Further to that, the last year also witnessed two bombings at tourist locations in Sungei Golok, a town that borders Narathiwat province and Malaysia. These attacks are again demonstrative of further deviation in targeting and tactical strategies.

Third, while the government appears convinced that BRN-Coordinate masterminded the 4 January 2004 arms heist at a Narathiwat Combat Engineer Camp that resulted in the loss of over 400 automatic weapons (it should be interesting to note that earlier assessments by security officials pointed to the GMIP or Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Pattani, another traditional separatist group, instead), not only have none but one of these weapons been recovered, but even more tellingly none of them have been used in any of the violence thus far. Indeed, it is noticeable that the mass attack on 28 April was carried out by militants armed with machetes and a handful of small-arms. This indicates that whoever is in possession of the weapons are either not employing them, or more likely are not involved at all in the current wave of violence.

The fact of the matter is that government intelligence itself remains unclear as to who their opponents are, and the recent indictment of BRN-Coordinate raises as many questions as it may answer. Interestingly, the very existence of BRN-Coordinate has been questioned by sources within the Thai military intelligence apparatus, indicating clearly a lack of coherence within the security establishment in Bangkok. Moreover, even if BRN-Coordinate did exist, security officials have yet to specify precisely which attacks, apart from the 4 January arms heist, could be attributed to them. Furthermore, it remains questionable on current evidence whether BRN-Coordinate possesses the structural and organisational capacity to orchestrate the entire slew of attacks that have occurred over the past few years. Indeed, the emergence of BRN-Coordinate only adds to an increasingly lengthy list of suspects, which has included criminal gangs, corrupt officials, local separatists, international jihadist, and radical Muslims. This speaks not only to the immense complexity of the challenges confronting Bangkok in terms of the likely multiplicity of actors working against it in the southern provinces, but also to fundamental intelligence and information gathering problems within Thai security and intelligence forces as well.

WATCHPOINT: In the aftermath of the 25 October incident at Tak Bai, Prime Minister Thaksin has again revamped the security and intelligence structure in the south by appointing General Sirichai Thanyasiri to assume overall command of the range of military, police, and intelligence services operating in the region. Will General Sirichai be able to exercise sufficient clout in managing the inter-service rivalries that has plagued security operations in the south and improve intelligence gathering on the perpetrators of the ongoing violence?


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