Battle won but strife not over

The militants' attack on the Bacho marine base in Narathiwat at 1am on Wednesday was supposed to be their crowning moment. After all, an endless string of high-profile attacks since the beginning of this year had not failed to put the security forces to shame while keeping the southern Muslims in paralysing fear.

For example, the shooting of a teacher in front of his pupils, a car bomb that killed five soldiers, a bloody ambush that killed two farmers during their mission to help revive long abandoned ricefields, and the cold-blooded murder of four fruit vendors. Meanwhile, the security forces were at their wits' end when the CCTVs in various locations were torched and destroyed in successive attacks. The escalating violence has made the Yingluck administration so anxious that the curfew idea has been brought out again.

The surprise attack on the marine base was intended to be a spectacular show of the insurgents' deadly force to gain revenge for the killing of their compatriots in a recent clash. As it turned out, the fully armed militants walked into a death trap.

When the smoke from the heavy gunfire died down, 16 militants were dead, including the notorious leader Maroso Chantrawadee who was responsible for many violent attacks and whose name made local residents' faces turn pale with fear.

Most previous blitzes on military bases have not ended well for the security forces. This time it was different. While the marines heaped praise on the locals for their support and tip-offs, the key factor behind the successful defence in Bacho was the marine corps' effective and thorough intelligence. But it is too soon, and too dangerous, to think that the military now has the upper hand. One small battle has been won, but the campaign is set to continue for a long time yet. The dead insurgents are still viewed by the locals as martyrs while the plight of the southern Muslims remains unaddressed.

The backgrounds of the Bacho insurgents are telling. Several were victims of violent crackdowns and state abuse. They were all from different parts of the deep South. Many reportedly had college degrees. They did not join the armed wing of the insurgency movement because they were poor, uneducated, or unemployed. They did it because they wanted to free the "motherland" from Bangkok's control. Their deaths will certainly spur new rounds of violence.

The southern strife is rooted in the clash of Malay and Buddhist Thai ultra-nationalism. The reason it is raging on is because both sides allow their hardline military wings to dominate the agenda.

If the central authorities really want to restore peace, they must show the determination to make political solutions possible.

To start with, the military must ensure that there are no more abuses of authority. The abusers must be punished. The victims must be compensated.

Meanwhile, the demands from civil society groups for respect for the cultural identity of the southern Muslims and a larger degree of decentralisation must be met so the locals can have a say to manage their own education, administration, and natural resources.

Despite the insurgents' ideological drive, their recent senseless violence against civilians has delegitimised their mission in the eyes of many locals.

The authorities must seize this opportunity by providing peaceful channels for the locals to realise their political aspirations. If not, the far South will continue to be plagued with violence.