Thailand’s troubles in its south are in danger of growing — and growing nastier
By Paul Ehrlich
Thailand's low-level, long-running Muslim insurgency in the south is showing no signs of a peaceful solution. If things continue this way, say experts of terrorism in Southeast Asia, the area could become the next center for regional extremists looking to support or exploit separatist goals.
The bloody unrest has claimed more than 1,000 lives in the last three years. Beheadings, bombings and drive-by shootings are an almost a daily occurrence. Recent attacks have become more coordinated and daring.
Analysts pointed out that transnational terrorist organizations, like al-Qaeda, have previously hijacked home-grown Muslim insurgencies and transformed local conflicts into global jihad campaigns in the name of oppressed coreligionists.
"In the recent past we have observed both Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern groups, especially financiers, communicating with the interest of linking up with the groups in Southern Thailand," Rohan Gunaratna, head of the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism, said in e-mail.
There is no documented evidence as yet that any outside jihadist group has been involved in the violence in the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, which are home to most of Thailand's three million Muslim minority.
The ideologies of Thailand's southern insurgents differ from those of extremist organizations; they are more ethno-nationalist than Islamist, and the targets are primarily Thai officials, Muslim civilians suspected of being informants for the government and Buddhist civilians and monks.
"The targets are not 'America and its lackeys,' they are not Western tourists. The conflict is about reclaiming the homeland for ethnic Malay Muslims rather than any ambition to establish a regional caliphate," said Francesca Lawe-Davies, Southeast Asia Analyst for the International Crisis Group.
But if grievances increase and the situation worsens, the potential of Thai groups seeking outside assistance grows. If members of jihadist groups, including the regional Islamic terror group Jemaah Islamiah (JI), jump into the fray, it could create, as Lawe-Davies wrote in an in-depth study, "more technically proficient insurgents or the transformation of a low-level, ethno-nationalist insurgency into something more resembling a regional jihad.
Analysts warn that if the unrest drags on, the conflict will become more difficult for the government to contain and resolve. The government of Thaksin Shinawatra was criticized for a hard-line stand, past human rights abuses and slow economic development in the area. Many local Muslims also fear assimilation policies will undermine their religion, language and customs. But the government has also been blamed for lacking a clearly defined approach to combat the insurgency.
Last July, Thailand extended a state of emergency in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat to deal with the escalating violence. The decree extended the period for which suspects can be detained, limited freedom of movement, enabled censoring of media and, most controversially, granted immunity to security forces.
"If the Thai security forces are not made accountable for their actions they will create an opening for international terrorist groups," said Dana Dillon, a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, in e-mail correspondence.
Still, some analysts are encouraged by a more restrained response by the Thai government to recent acts of violence. The National Reconciliation Commission set up earlier last year is a promising approach to national unity, they say.
But it's unlikely that security forces will keep a restrained response indefinitely as insurgents become more daring. In October, militants derailed a train with powerful explosives less than a day after launching raids in 63 locations and stealing nearly 100 government-issued weapons.
Gunaratna wrote that existing terrorist capabilities are "robust" and the insurgents are developing new skills: "They have learned that to survive and succeed, they need to adapt to the government's security measures. They have done this successfully. Despite intermittent government successes, the overall terrorist threat in southern Thailand is growing and the violence is escalating."
More troubling is the possibility of regional terrorists getting involved. Experts said that there have been attempts to build a JI base in Narathiwat. Singaporean JI member, Arifin bin Ali, alias John Wong Ah Hung, was arrested in May 2003; he confessed that he and three Thais had plans to detonate car bombs simultaneously at the U.S., British, Israeli, Singapore and Australian embassies in Bangkok. The Thais were acquitted in June 2005 because Arifin's testimony was dismissed as unreliable.
Tentative links have also been discovered between Thai insurgents and Indonesia's Free Aceh Movement (GAM), Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf in Philippines, as well as groups fighting for independence in Kashmir, said experts.
Little is known about the Islamic groups and how much of a unified command exists. Many are small neighborhood cells working independently or in loose collaboration with other small groups. Small bomb attacks and drive-by shootings are often carried out by for a variety of opportunistic reasons -- drug wars, revenge killings, robbery. Larger, coordinated attacks are organized by shadowy leaders calling on several cells or groups to join together, one group often unaware of other's existence or involvement.
Arabinda Acharya, co-author with Gunaratna and Sabrina Chua of the recent book, Conflict and Terrorism in Southern Thailand, wrote in e-mail that new research shows that the Dewan Pembabasan Pattani (DPP), or Patani Liberation Council, is considered the top group that plans the attacks, "charting the way and form the insurgency is to take." The group is highly secretive -- even the militants down the ranks of the hierarchy do not know just who makes up the DPP.
Other analysts speculate that the DPP works as a "command structure" of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Coordinate (BRN-C), National Revolutionary Front Coordinate. Thai authorities say BRN-C, with other groups like the Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Pattani (GMIP), are responsible for coordinating major attacks. Thai authorities believe that members of the GMIP, whose founding leader Nasori Saesaeng reportedly fought in Afghanistan, have had links to al-Qaeda and JI, though no evidence of direct involvement has been presented.
The Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) is one of the oldest Thai Muslim separatist groups in the area, but analysts such as Acharya and Gunaratna question the extent of its influence among the insurgent groups operating in the region. PULO is further internationalizing the conflict by highlighting the plight of Thai Muslims to the media while continuing to issue threats and warnings of attacks from its website.
"If the government opts to kill and kill without reason, perhaps fighters from Indonesia and Arab countries will help us because, according to Islam, real Muslims cannot just stand by when their brother Muslims are being slain," Lukman Lima, PULO's Sweden-based leader, told the Associated Press in September 2005.
Also under scrutiny is Pusat Persatuan Tadika Narathiwat (Pusaka). Pusaka is the tadika (weekend religious schools) association of Narathiwat. Authorities suspect it is a BRN front because Masae Useng, a known BRN member and wanted separatist activist linked to weapon heists, was its secretary and is believed to have run training camps for Pusaka.
"There's a distinct possibility that some of Pusaka's members are involved in separatist activities," said Lawe-Davies. "A number of tadika teachers are known to have been drawn into separatist groups, but it is not clear whether Pusaka has been involved in recruitment."
There is also evidence of Thai Muslims having trained outside the country, in Afghanistan and the Philippine island of Mindanao. And there is considerable ideological and rear area support in Malaysia, John Harrison, Manager of Terrorism Research International Center for Political Violence & Terrorism Research in Singapore, explained in an e-mail. He citied PULO's close ties with some elements of the fundamentalist Parti Islam seMalaysia (PAS) in Malaysia's neighboring Kelantan state.
The Thai government claimed that Malaysia's Muslim-controlled area of Kelantan is a safe-haven for fleeing insurgents wanted by the police. Bangkok has repeatedly alleged that PULO and other insurgents have benefited from the provision of safe-havens in Kelantan and that this support has come with the sanction of PAS.
Thailand's porous borders have also made it a haven and a hideout for al Qaida-linked militants. Before his 2003 arrest in Thailand, senior al-Qaeda operative Hambali was known to have made several trips to the southern provinces. Considered the mastermind of the October 2002 Bali blasts and a string of bombings throughout Southeast Asia, Hambali was al-Qaeda's regional point man for JI.
Known as Riduan Isamuddin, Hambali tried but failed to get local support to blow up tourist spots in Thailand. He is known to have met Noordin Mohammad Top and Azhari Husin in Bangkok in March and April 2002. The two men are JI leaders believed to be behind the recent bombing in Bali and other deadly attacks in Indonesia. The men discussed attacking diplomatic targets such as the Australian, British or US Embassies in Indonesia as well as other economic targets in the oil and mining sectors. The meeting also included Mukhlas, a regional commander for JI who has since been sentenced to death in Indonesia after confessing to overseeing the Bali bombings. Indonesian police killed Azhari in a raid in East Java in November 2005. Noordin is still at large.
"Recent reports from the field suggest that some members of New Pattani United Liberation Organization (NPULO) were being trained in Indonesia with one of the factions of JI linked to Noordin," said Acharaya in e-mail. Referring to the reports, he added: "If true, these trainees may bring suicide terrorism to Thailand, which could change the security dynamics in southern Thailand significantly." NPULO, which broke from PULO in 1992, is considered more radical than its parent organization.