PATTANI, THAILAND (AP) - While Thai authorities are preoccupied with riots in the capital, a five-year-old Muslim uprising in the south of the country is intensifying, and Thailand’s troubled government and army are at odds about how to deal with it.
The bombings, shootings and beheadings show no signs of quieting. Machine-gun mounted Humvees scour for roadside bombs, soldiers sweep through villages suspected of harboring the insurgents and helicopters clatter above an idyllic, tropical landscape over which authorities have cast a security net more dense in terms of area and population than in Iraq.
The toll has risen to more than 3,400 dead and some 5,600 injured as the shadowy rebels pursue an ill-defined agenda that sometimes seems to call for an Islamic state separate from Buddhist-dominated Thailand, but is mostly a reaction to a history of discrimination.
Last month, in a surge-style operation, 4,000 more soldiers were added to a security force of 60,000 already in the three southern provinces.
But stalked by years of failed military efforts, the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is considering less military-focused options including lifting martial law and emergency decrees in the restive provinces, and reviving councils that once allowed Muslims more say in local matters.
But Abhisit is hamstrung. His energies have been absorbed by the mass demonstrations in Bangkok that are unrelated to the insurgency, and his political future is far from assured. And to an extent, he owes his premiership to a military that doesn’t want to cede such powers as holding of suspects for up to 30 days without trial.
“Even if Abhisit knows exactly what he ought to do in the south he hasn’t got a lot of power over these (military) guys. To move to a political situation you need to reduce the military’s dominance and demilitarize the problem to some degree. But he isn’t strong enough to launch a civilian-political offensive,” says Duncan McCargo, author of the recent book on the insurgency, “Tearing Apart the Land.”
Critics of government policy say causes of the southern crisis are too deeply rooted to be destroyed militarily, stemming from a history of governments that distrust the Muslims and don’t regard them as “real Thais.”
“The way they deal with us, press down on our youth, just makes young men more anti-government. They become more violent and go into the jungle to fight,” says Nomee Yapa, whose father, a village imam, died in military custody. A court ruled last December that he had been tortured to death.
The complaints, even from moderate Muslim leaders, range from search patrols barging into homes to officials sneering at them for speaking their dialect of Malay, rather than Thai.
“We can’t be ourselves anymore. Anything we do is suspect _ a meeting among four or five friends, or just games. They even come into Quran classes for children to take photographs,” says Nomee. The schoolteacher says that virtually every young man in Ko To village has been taken into temporary custody for questioning.
The military has been under intense pressure to take whatever measures necessary to suppress the violence, which includes terror tactics like beheadings and attacks on temples widely seen as intended to drive Buddhists from the area. Queen Sirikit, wife of the constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej _ who usually keeps clear of public remarks about matters of state _ spoke out several times of the need for protection.
Now, the military says it is adopting less aggressive tactics.
“We are doing much more to reach the people, to get closer to them. We are trying to forge more bonds with the villagers. We use martial law power only when necessary to deal with the insurgents.” said Maj. Gen. Saksin Klansnoh, the Pattani task force commander.
He estimated the insurgents numbered only 3,000-6,000 out of a population of 1.8 million, more than 70 percent of them Muslim, in the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. These border Malaysia and are about half the size of Israel or New Jersey.
Saksin said violent incidents in Pattani dropped by 40 percent from October 2008 to March 2009, and independent analysts agree that attacks subsided overall last year as the military rounded up suspects and arrested some bomb makers.
But Srisompob Jitpiromsri, who tracks the numbers at Pattani’s Prince of Songkhla University, said violent incidents began to rise again this year with some 100 in March _ the highest monthly figure since 2007.
Remotely detonated road side explosives, drive-by shootings and, more recently, car bombs target both Buddhist authorities and Muslims suspected of siding with the state, along with innocents of both sides. There were nine beheadings in February.
“This indicates that the military approach failed to win hearts and minds,” the political scientist said. “The military can disrupt the insurgents, block their movements, but it cannot fully control the situation. The insurgents can pick and choose their targets at any time, any place.”
Even a superb military _ and Thailand’s southern forces have been widely criticized for incompetence _ would find the insurgency a formidable challenge.
Into its fifth year, the insurgency has yet to reveal either its leaders or concrete aims. It appears to operate in small, fluid cells which have little direct contact with leaders of several shadowy organizations, principally the BRN-C, or National Revolutionary Front-Coordinate. Out of either sympathy or fear, the local population rarely points out the rebels to authorities.
“Sometimes we know who the leaders are but we don’t have the evidence to bring them in. We have the same problems as the Americans in Iraq _ to identify the insurgents from among the majority of people who are good,” said Saksin.
Although some of their leaflets are couched in the rhetoric of holy war, the insurgents don’t launch suicide bombers, stage attacks outside the south or target foreigners. Their goals appear local and limited.
McCargo cautions against linking the insurgency to al-Qaida and global jihad. That could happen, he says, “but it hasn’t happened until now.”
Attempts at negotiations have been halfhearted at best. Some Muslims suggest foreign mediation. Others suggest a form of autonomy, noting the region was an independent sultanate until it became part of Thailand in 1902.
Srisompob sees a hope that young, upwardly mobile southerners will moderate the crisis, provided they are allowed to maintain their Islamic traditions.
Worawit Baru, a prominent Muslim senator from Pattani, says the government simply doesn’t understand the region’s problems.
“This part of Thailand is so very different from all the others,” he says. “You cannot deny history, culture. You cannot ignore 100 years, but this they don’t understand.”