Thailand's Civil War Escalating?

Every day in Southern Thailand, almost two people die in a savage guerrilla war that shows no signs of abating after eight years. So far, the battle by Islamist separatists has taken the lives of more than 5,000 people with the number increasing.

Now, say diplomats, the situation is growing increasingly worrisome, and in fact could escalate into an international security crisis similar to Yemen or Afghanistan, according to Britain's ambassador to Thailand.

The British and EU ambassadors called attention to the situation in opening speeches at a forum headlined as a "Roadmap to Deep-South Resolution: Government Concerns and Policy Responses 2011-2014" at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on Wednesday (January 11).

Jan. 6 was a case in point, when 30 armed guerrillas attacked a police camp in Narathiwat Province, killing two officers and stealing five heavy weapons and bullets. Another three officers were wounded. On the same day, gunmen shot dead one man and injured his wife, who was a teacher. In Pattani province, two men were killed in drive-by shooting incidents and a rubber tapper was shot dead on his way home from work in Yala province.

"We know from other conflicts that these conflicts cannot always be contained," said Asif Ahmad, the British ambassador. "There may come a day when the troubles of the south will become the troubles of the region as a whole. And I dare say this, it might become a magnet for people to create havoc from elsewhere. We've seen it in Yemen. We've seen it in Afghanistan. You cannot be immune.”

"Southern Thailand has undergone a very tragic period over the last seven or eight years, with 5,000 people killed, maybe up to 10,000 people injured, and in recent times the situation has even deteriorated," the European Union Ambassador to Thailand, David Lipman, said.

"Almost two people per day are being killed on average at the moment in south Thailand, so this is obviously very, very worrying.

"The European Union as such does not wish to interfere in any way with an internal conflict problem in Thailand, but we would like to interact and we would like to share experiences. We have experiences in Northern Ireland, in the Basque country [of Spain]. There are many experiences that we can share," Mr. Lipman said.

A handful of Thai military and political officials also spoke at the FCCT meeting, describing how Bangkok is searching for ways to quell the violence, address the needs of Buddhist-majority Thailand's southern Muslim minority, and improve the impoverished region's education system, economy, and security.

Some 59 percent of the people killed in the southern insurgency were Muslim, while 38 percent were Buddhists. They include soldiers, religious leaders, teachers, students, workers, businessmen and others, totaling 5,243 deaths since January 2004, according to collated statistics.

"The death toll includes 4,215 ordinary citizens, 351 soldiers, 280 policemen, 148 teachers and educational personnel, seven Buddhist monks and 242 suspected insurgents," the English-language Bangkok Post said on January 5.

So far Bangkok has spent US$3.5 billion on "military operations to tame the insurgency" during the past eight years, only to see the death rate increase.

At least 535 people were killed last year in the conflict compared to 521 in 2010.

"Military operations have not been successful," the Bangkok Post concluded.

The Islamist separatists' hit-and-run war is mostly confined to the three southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala where Muslims form 94 percent of the population along Thailand's mountainous border with Muslim-majority Malaysia.

The Buddhist kingdom of Thailand annexed the region more than 100 years ago, but a new generation of Muslim militants has renewed a decades-long, smoldering fight for its autonomy or to carve out an independent nation to be called Pattani.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been criticized for not doing enough to solve the underlying causes of the violence.

"The Yingluck government...has said nothing about the culture of impunity among the security forces," said a non-profit organization, Pattani Forum, in a statement distributed at the conference.

Alleged "extrajudicial killings" by poorly disciplined security forces are one of the main complaints among the south's minority ethnic Malay-Thai Muslims.

"The Thai general public is largely indifferent to the plight and grievances of Malays" in the south, it said.

Thailand's ethnic Malay separatists "are organized into small, relatively organic cells throughout the Malay-speaking south. They live among the people, in town and city, and they enjoy a great deal of support and sympathy from the local Malay Muslims," the Pattani Forum said.

In September, London-based Amnesty International said the Islamist rebels "have committed -- and are continuing to commit -- what amount to acts aimed at spreading terror among the civilian population, and which constitute war crimes."

That same month, Brad Adams, the Asia director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch denounced the insurgents' frequent campaign of bombing public targets such as nightclubs, hotels and elsewhere and described such tactics as "not armed struggle, but a sickening crime."

The "separatist insurgents in the loose network of National Revolution Front-Coordinate (BRN-Coordinate), have suffered setbacks from security sweeps, but still maintain a presence in hundreds of ethnic Malay Muslim villages in southern Thailand," Human Rights Watch said.

(Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist reporting news from Asia since 1978. His website is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com.)