- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 4, 2004

NARATHIWAT, THAILAND — Col. Sumet Matree- parsaru stands before a wall-size map where red squares mark recent attacks in this country’s Muslim-majority south, and shrugs his shoulders.

“We are still collecting information on who is behind these attacks,” he said at an army planning room in southern Narathiwat province.

Rebels began their latest campaign in the south 10 months ago, but authorities say they still have no clear picture of who is instigating the violence.

Since the beginning of the year, militants have killed hundreds of Thai officials, security personnel and, increasingly, civilians. They have burned dozens of schools, bombed Buddhist temples and bred fear across the south without issuing a single demand or revealing their face, officials say.

Security officers and Muslim community leaders say they are baffled and are finding it almost impossible to fight, let alone negotiate, with the phantom enemy.

Few arrests have been made.

“We do have leads but we don’t have a clear picture,” said another senior officer in the operations room.

The acknowledgment comes despite vague statements by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that military leaders know who is masterminding the violence.

Mr. Thaksin’s handling of the south has come under intense international scrutiny since an Oct. 25 riot in Tak Bai, Narathiwat.

At least 87 persons died after the demonstration. Authorities say they are investigating who was behind the protest, which they dispersed using water cannon, tear gas and gunfire. Most of those killed were crushed to death or suffocated after being arrested and piled into army trucks.

Muslim clerics and community leaders say they, too, cannot pinpoint who is behind the attacks.

“It is a mixture of genuine separatists, but there is also a large group of people who are driving this violence with an unclear objective,” said Abdulrahman Abdulsamad, chairman of the Islamic Council of Narathiwat.

This year Mr. Thaksin blamed the unrest on young Thai Muslims manipulated in the name of Islam. Analysts have said the situation in the south is complex, with separatists, gangsters, corrupt officials and a culture of lawlessness each playing a role.

After the final victims of Tak Bai were buried, unknown assailants immediately began a string of bombings and shootings that left a policeman and civilians dead. A local official was beheaded.

Near three traders who were shot and wounded, militants left pieces of paper bearing their first message: “It is less than what you did to innocent people at Tak Bai.”

There was still no demand or claim of responsibility.

Muslims in the poor and underdeveloped south have long complained that the far-away government in Bangkok is insensitive to their culture and religion. Separatist campaigns have flared sporadically since Thailand annexed what was an independent sultanate a century ago.

After Tak Bai, the outlawed Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) called on its Web site for new attacks on police and military personnel.

But officials say groups like PULO largely withered away with the last insurgency in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the government began an infrastructure drive and brought more Muslims into the government.

“PULO has a Web site and that’s about it,” said a senior Narathiwat provincial official. Fearing for his safety, he asked to be identified only by his first name, Ya.

“If we knew who these people were or what they wanted, we would act, and act decisively,” he said. “I can only guess they are trying to terrorize Buddhists into leaving the region.”

Although the cause and identity of the rebels remains undocumented, their increasingly sophisticated ability to wage guerrilla war has not.

Groups in the south operate largely without foreign assistance, but they are following the growing trend of radicalism after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a lecturer on regional security at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“They’re in a transitional period, from a more traditional separatist and religious extremist movement to terrorist organizations,” Mr. Panitan said.

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