Thai Deep South Violence Could Signal Resurgent Conflict

A deadly attack by ethnic Malay Muslim insurgents that took the lives of at least 15 people near the southern Thailand town of Yala raises the specter of a resurgent conflict that has been relatively dormant under military rule despite 15 years of unrest that has taken thousands of lives.

Despite the death toll, it remains questionable whether violence will escalate, however. In recent years, insurgents have launched several highly publicized bombings, including outside Thailand's upper south, only to be followed by periods of relative dormancy. Since analysts anticipate that the military will exercise dominance over the state for some time, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel movement may continue to delay engaging in serious talks while launching occasional hardline attacks that remind Bangkok and the international community of their capacity.

Successive Thai governments have repeatedly failed to lead senior separatist figures from BRN to the dialogue table, a point that many Thai soldiers and officials claim reflects the hardline aspirations of independent BRN hardliners. In contrast, Malay Muslim activists and Thai Buddhist opposition politicians suggest this more aptly reflects the Thai military establishment's resistance to some form of regional autonomy and a role for the international community in the dialogue process.

Several sources said that the Yala shootings, which included nearly simultaneous bombings and arson attacks and which are said to have targeted those with strong ties to police and military, also likely reflect BRN opposition to the Thai side’s informal talks being carried out in Europe. Successive Thai governments have gone to certain European countries to hold informal talks with factions of the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), a leading separatist group in the 1970s and 1980s that has by and large not been tied to violence.

Several sources that spoke with Asia Sentinel suggested that the Malay Muslim insurgents' shootings, which actually killed or injured as many as 20 – mostly Buddhist village defense volunteers – may have been timed to garner international attention. The November 6 ambush, the most lethal carried out by insurgents since the conflict's dramatic escalation in 2004, occurred immediately following the November 2 - 4 summit meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bangkok, where high-level regional and global dignitaries met to discuss political, economic and security affairs.

On the first day of similar early August meetings in Bangkok, alleged Malay Muslim insurgents launched small-scale bombings in the capital that left no serious casualties but may have served as a similar reminder of the protracted conflict in the ethno-religious minority region of Thailand, where over 7,000 have died from violence since 2004.

Most sources believe the BRN aimed to show its strength to both the international community and the Thai government ahead of proposed talks, set for later this month. Formal talks have been delayed since February, when chief negotiator Sukree Hari announced that Mara Patani, a separatist umbrella group, would suspend talks with the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, and wait until after the country's national elections in March

In June the Thai parliament, which includes a fully military appointed senate, returned Prayuth to power. Ever since the former army chief ousted the elected Pheu Thai government in a May 2014 coup, a Malaysian-brokered dialogue process with separatist representatives has made no breakthroughs. Yet because violence levels have dipped significantly, particularly since 2017, Prayuth and his establishment allies in Bangkok have not been pressed to offer anything substantial at the dialogue table.

Srisompob Jitpiromsri, who heads a think-tank that monitors the region's violence, told Asia Sentinel that violence has been especially low over the past two months. He added that insurgents may have been trying to "raise the profile of the conflict" by taking advantage of weak security to bolster their bargaining power at the dialogue table.

"The security units consisting of defense volunteers are known to be a weak point in the state's security apparatus," he said.

The Thai military has largely ignored the BRN’s core demands, first formally made in 2013 during the reign of the Pheu Thai government led by Yingluck Shinawatra. Most recently, in August, Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan rejected demands that included the release of all people detained over suspected links to the insurgency and transparent investigations into abuses by security forces.

Thai media reported that some security officials initially suspected that the incidents may have served as revenge for the killings of two alleged insurgents by security forces last week in Saiburi district of Pattani Province and for the death of Abdulloh Esomusor back in late August. Abdulloh hailed from Saiburi and died after being treated in an intensive care unit for more than a month from injuries sustained while in military custody. Human rights groups and local Malay Muslims widely believe that the 32-year-old was tortured by soldiers.

One Malay Muslim activist somewhat downplayed this claim, noting that insurgents likely would have retaliated already for Abdulloh's highly-publicized death in August. Instead, the activist reiterated that belief that insurgents are likely trying to remind the newly-formed government and Wallop Raksanoh, secretary-general of the National Security Council, recently named to lead the dialogue, of their ability for mayhem.

It has been unclear who might lead the separatist side. Pressured by both Malaysia and Thailand, separatists living in exile in Malaysia formed Mara Patani in 2014 to hold talks with Prayuth’s government. Although the group has included figures from the BRN, its legitimacy has reportedly been questioned by BRN hardliners and even the group's senior leadership council due in part to its relationship with Malaysian authorities.

Citing health reasons, Sukree, a member of BRN that security officers claim has ties to the cell-based insurgents on the ground, resigned from his position in Mara Patani in May. Two sources who closely follow the dialogue process claimed that Mara Patani will play a secondary role and that Hasarn Toryib, an older BRN member who headed dialogue in 2013 with Yingluck's more progressive government, may lead the talks.

Security officials also pointed out, without elaborating, that the incidents took place near the home of the father of the Malaysia-based Sukree. It is thus possible that the incidents may signal to the Thai side Sukree and other BRN members’ opposition to the Thai side's perceived staunch conservatism, one official suggested.