Strategy for deep South still a sham

Strategy for deep South still a sham

Security forces secure an area after a separatist attack in the southern province of Narathiwat on March 13, 2016. (Photo: AFP)
Security forces secure an area after a separatist attack in the southern province of Narathiwat on March 13, 2016. (Photo: AFP)

It amazes me how, after nearly two decades of fighting that has claimed more than 7,000 lives in this historically contested region where armed Patani Malay combatants are pitted against Thai government security forces, officials still lack the basic understanding of a counter-insurgency.

That is because policymakers always say they are committed to winning the hearts and minds of local people -- a strategy touted as the best solution to fight insurgents like the rebel Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). But the actions of security forces on the ground tell us that there is still an enormous gap between what the top brass say and what security forces do.

From my experience, those espousing the winning-hearts-and-minds rhetoric are just paying lip service. Take the recent standoff between scores of security forces and one BRN operative just a very short distance from my home in Pattani province's Nong Chik district.

On Nov 9, security personnel were deployed against the BRN insurgent hiding 40 metres away from my home.

Local leaders, including a village chief, were called in to help speak to the operative through a loudspeaker. What is alarming is that security forces did not even bother to ask how local leaders felt about this role or whether this could compromise their personal safety.

If standoffs that have killed 69 combatants over the past two years have told us anything, it is that the militants have always been armed and that they -- except for the few who surrendered -- are willing to fight to the end and even die for their cause.

At 13.30 that day when two truckloads of security officers came charging through my yard, I was at home, which is four doors down from where the BRN operative was hiding.

The security forces were in defensive positions -- some in a prone position, others kneeling behind trees, as if they were ready to shoot. They instructed me to stay inside.

Despite the precarious situation, they looked around my home and noticed that I had two mobile phones, which they thought was unusual. And so they detained me for further questioning.

Unlike other regions in Thailand, having two mobile phones raises suspicions in the restive South as residents are required to register their SIM cards in a government facial recognition system. Authorities believe such measures can help them identify separatist insurgents who use mobile phones to trigger roadside bombs.

Without being charged, the security officials used martial law to detain me for questioning. Anywhere else in Thailand, such an action would qualify as harassment and a human rights violation. But I am well aware of the reality. There is a war going on in my backyard and drastic measures are inevitable.

Indeed, I was not angry but disappointed at the fact that none of these security officials seemed to care about the safety of the residents who could easily have been caught up in the crossfire had a gunfight broken out. No one took the time to clear or cordon off the area, to ensure the safety of the villagers.

Five hours later, about 5.30pm, I was handed over to a couple of officers from the Fourth Army Area Command. They came with video cameras which they held to my face. They asked general questions such as how I felt about violence in general. "I disagree with the use of violence regardless of the warring side," I answered.

Then, they became more specific, asking me about the BRN, and wanting me to comment on the group's decision to resume their campaign of violence. They pointed to the attack against Marine Police at Tak Bai on May 26, 2022. "I think you should go ask the BRN themselves about why they decided to resume their military operations," I answered.

Apparently, the interviewers did their homework. They seemed to know about my background and my political history as a former student activist and now with The Patani (a political action group). Therefore, most of their questions were regarding the politics of the southernmost provinces.

After a while, I assumed they were from the so-called Information Operation (IO), a not-so-secret military unit that spins information propaganda aimed at undermining the BRN.

About half an hour into the interview, a gunfight broke out between the lone rebel and security officers. I hit the ground. So did the soldiers interviewing me; basic instinct, I guess. Shortly after that, I was taken to the Nong Chik Tambon Administrative Organisation in the district. They released me that evening at 11pm.

For me, the gunfight that broke out in Nong Chik is testimony to the fact that the use of religious leaders and other civilians to talk to insurgents does not work.

There is also a big question over the safety of civilians recruited to help -- in this case, a village chief who helped the security forces and who was shot dead during the operation.

According to media and local accounts, the village chief went up to the door of the suspected insurgent with two armed police right behind him. It was not clear if he was supposed to persuade the militant to lay down his arms and surrender. Was he considered to be "friendly"? If so, how could one explain the two police behind him?

National television reports were quick to paint the village chief as a hero but failed to ask why he was permitted to go with armed officers to the suspect's door in the first place.

TV reports embraced the official narrative without questioning the logic behind their operating procedure. It's no wonder why locals don't watch Thai television, much less national news.

Sadly, authorities are so obsessed with controlling the narrative that they forget about what they need to do first and foremost -- win the hearts and minds of locals.

After the incident, I recalled a conversation with an old friend about a Malay Muslim student -- an aspiring teacher who studied at a local college in Yala.

A promising student, she was sent to a well-known public school in the city as part of her university course.

She was instructed to serve pork at the school lunch counter. Her superior, a Buddhist, didn't want to hear any excuses and threatened her with a failing grade should she refuse. In short, she was bullied.

Word of what happened reached a senior Internal Security Operation Command (Isoc)-Region 4 officer working on a counter-insurgency strategy. The officer expressed disappointment at the school but never took any action.

For Muslim villagers in the southernmost provinces, especially those who speak Malay, bullying, special registration for mobile phone SIM cards and the renaming of our towns and villages from the Malayu dialect into the Thai language drive us to the peripheries, making us feel like outcasts in our own land.

In two decades of violence, officials have yet to build bridges and win over local hearts and minds. This void and lack of trust speak volumes about why there is still violence in the deep South.

Asmadee Bueheng is the communication officer at The Patani, a political action group that advocates for the right to self-determination for the people of this Malay-speaking region.

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