It was a matter of life and death for officers at the 2nd Rifle Company of the Royal Thai Marines in Bacho district of Narathiwat as they waited for an expected armed attack by southern insurgents on the night of Feb 13.
They were well prepared, which gave them the upper hand in defending their base. Sixteen militants were killed in the operation which triggered an outcry from human rights advocates who frowned at what they regarded as an excessive use of force.
But their criticisms eventually subsided after the pictures of seized arms and ammunition were released.
The items that were seized from the dead insurgents included ropes and arson materials indicating they had planned to take the marines hostage and set the base ablaze.
Marine sources accredited the success of the operation to defend the base to villagers-turned-informants who alerted officers of unusual movements by insurgents.
This included the infiltration of strangers into Yuelo and south Bareh villages in Bacho district in the weeks before the attack.
It was similar help from informants that earlier enabled the officers to track down core leader Suhaidee Tahe who was killed after resisting arrest on Feb 9. The sketch of the marine base that was found with his body indicated the insurgents planned to attack the base.
What was unknown was the time of the attack.
Informants also confirmed that key figure Maroso Chantharawadee who had 14 arrest warrants against him, and a 2.5-million-baht bounty on his head had returned to the area after he allegedly shot to death teacher Chonlathee Charoenchon at Ban Tanyong School in Bacho district on Jan 23.
The marines under Cdr Thammanoon Wanna had to make themselves ready for the worst.
With only 30, mostly conscripted non-commissioned officers, the base was in no position to handle the militants.
It asked for reinforcements, and 20 Seals and Force Recon troops later discreetly joined their numbers.
The most difficult part of the mission was keeping a secret their plans to defend the base.
It's well known that some villagers who live next door to the base are informants for the militants.
The sources said the reinforcements only gradually entered the base, and kept a low profile.
At 9.20pm on Feb 12, eight fighters approached the base from the rear to survey the scene.
The officers knew the time for the insurgent attack had come.
At 1.10 am the following day, 50 armed militants arrived on two pickup trucks and motorcycles. Some also entered the base on foot.
After a clash lasting 20 minutes, they realised the marines knew of their attack in advance.
The insurgents retreated on a pickup truck. Some tried to flee to Sai Buri district of Pattani.
The officers followed them into the jungle in hot pursuit and the area became a battlefield. The fighting lasted until dawn.
The marines suffered no casualties, but the militants lost 16 fighters.
Cdr Thammanoon said some militants were able to retrieve the bodies from the battle scene.
"We could not catch them alive. It was a fierce fight. It's either them or us. We both have one life.
"Any mistake meant loss," he said. Ten soldiers had been killed by militants in the past month.
From the 16 insurgent deaths in the botched camp raid, and the evidence collected at the scene, the marines now have a better idea who they are fighting in the insurgency movement.
More arrests and prosecutions are likely to follow.
The officers also hope they will gain more understanding from villagers, whose willingness to pass on information helped them thwart the raid.
Since the Feb 13 clash, insurgent attacks in the three southern provinces have continued unabated, with the marines as the main target.
They are also waging a social media battle, posting clips featuring the dead militants as martyrs.
The marines have no choice but to stand ready.
Wassana Nanuam is a senior news reporter covering military affairs for the Bangkok Post
About the author
- Writer: Wassana Nanuam