Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS-THAILAND: Army Drives Muslim Rebels to the Hills

Marwaan Macan-Markar

YALA, Thailand, Aug 17 2009 (IPS) - The Blackhawk helicopter flies fast and relatively high above an endless expanse of hills, some gentle and rolling, some with sharp peaks, in this southernmost tip of Thailand, where an insurgency has been raging for over five years.

The scene below is a canopy of thick dense forest. It is difficult to see what lies within the jungle terrain; it is likewise impossible to detect who moves under such forest cover even on a late morning bathed with bright tropical sunlight.

Yet penetrating this forest-covered hills that spread over two of this country’s provinces – Yala and Narathiwat – close to the Thai-Malaysian border is the new challenge that the Thai military faces as it battles shadowy Malay-Muslim militants.

It follows the counter-insurgency campaign by the military to limit the space militants have to operate in this largely rural rubber and rice-growing region. That includes flushing the insurgents out of the Malay-Muslim villages.

For now, the military is turning to small well-armed patrols to track down the militants hiding in the forests. The soldiers and rangers, often working in groups of 22, spend five to 10 days on such missions triggered by intelligence gathered by the army. At times, helicopters offer support.

The numbers the military has in its crosshairs remain as elusive as the actual nature of the Malay-Muslim militants, who have not openly rallied under a distinct banner. While the army estimates that the shadowy network they are targeting is around 8,000, others put it close to 9,500, not all of whom are trained fighters. Some of them serve as couriers while others perform other tasks.

The military high command that oversees operations in the three southern provinces, which include Pattani, admits that the task of tracking down the insurgents in the forest-covered hills is a formidable one. "The whole mountain area is vast. We are not fully successful at controlling movement in the forests," said Lt Gen Pichet Wisaijorn, commander of the Fourth Army Region.

"The insurgents are good at moving through the forests, which are very dense," he revealed during an interview. "This is our weak area."

Former veterans of jungle warfare, such as Wang Than Hok, understand the task that the Thai military faces. "The forests in these parts are so thick that it is impossible for the military to move through unless they know the routes," said the 50-year-old ex-fighter of the Malaysian Communist Party, who spent 11 years deep in the jungles during another battle that was waged in this terrain till the mid-1980s.

Consequently, the Malay-Muslim militants have found the forest-covered hills of Yala and Narathiwat ideal to hide weapons and make bombs. A military patrol that recently stumbled upon a camp vacated by the militants also found solar batteries that, according to a military source, "is used to charge mobile phones."

Yet such traces of increasing militant activity in the forest are being translated by the military here as a success, for it means the operating space for the militants in the over 2,000 villages that dot Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani provinces is shrinking, driving them into the hills.

Part of that strategy has been to set up military camps, each with a platoon of 31 soldiers, in the heart of 217 villages that are located by the side of rubber plantations and paddy field. They have been identified as hotbeds of militant activity, also called "red zones".

"Before we moved in two years ago, the red zones were strongholds of the insurgents," said Col Parinya Chaidilok, spokesman for the Fourth Army Region. "The villages served as operation bases and provided the insurgents with support."

By entering the villages and staying with the people day and night, the army wants to "build trust with (them), help them with small development projects and get information about those active in the insurgency," the official told the IPS while walking through a village in Narathiwat that had been a den of militant activity.

"We are trying to contain insurgent activity: to keep them out of the villages and to push them into the mountains," he said. "It is a slow process; we have to be patient."

"This is typical counter-insurgency strategy, like what was done in Malaysia to combat the communists," said Marc Askew, author of the book 'Conspiracy, Politics and a Disorderly Border: The Struggle to Comprehend Insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South'. "The army wants to separate the fish from the water."

"This strategy is working at some levels, because more villagers are giving them information, and they know the names of the (insurgents) operating in some areas," said the Australian national who has been researching this conflict. "But sometimes this information is given too late."

The military’s muscle in this counter-insurgency campaign is evident elsewhere, too, as it pours in more troops, creates para-military units and arms civilians as ad-hoc defence forces. While the official number of all these armed men and women are estimated at close to 60,000, unofficial figures place it much higher, close to 90,000.

A network of 873 small camps found on the side of roads and near the entrance of some villages has become part of this troubled landscape. Here, soldiers armed with M-16 rifles mount a vigil behind sandbags and rolls of barbed wire.

Other uniformed men mount guard duty, some as foot patrols, some on motor bicycles, as part of the nearly 2,300 missions carried out daily by the troops. Their assignment: to protect Buddhist monks, teachers, schools and temples that have been targeted by the militants.

Such a heavy military presence is a factor behind the cycle of violence dipping significantly in the last two years, reveals a study by Deep South Watch (DSW), an independent research centre monitoring the conflict at Pattani’s Prince of Songkhla University. June 2007, for instance, recorded 247 instances of violence. By January this year, this figure had fallen to 55.

"Violence has decreased since June 2007, when the army began large-scale operations by sending more than 60,000 troops to round up suspected insurgents," DSW notes of a conflict that has seen 8,810 violent incidents.

But there have been ominous signs since March this year that the violence perpetrated by the militants has been increasing, raising questions about the military’s counter-insurgency campaign. The month saw over 100 incidents, according to DSW.

There are also more disturbing signs of human rights violations, said Srisompop Jitpiromsri, a political scientist who heads DSW. "The military’s efforts to contain the violence and engage with the villagers has been successful, but there have been human rights violations," he said. "This is the big problem they have. It happens when suspects are arrested under emergency laws and detained for 37 days in camps with no access to lawyers."

It is a view echoed by the global rights lobby Amnesty International in a report released early this year. Thai security forces have systematically relied on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in their efforts to obtain information or extract confessions to compensate for poor intelligence and evidence gathering, said the report, 'Thailand: Torture In The Southern Counter-insurgency'.

The Malay-Muslim insurgents, on the other hand, have been fingered for the more than 3,400 deaths documented since early 2004. The victims include around 1,500 civilians, ranging from rubber tapers, teachers, and Buddhist monks to Muslim clerics. Over 200 soldiers and a similar number of policemen have also been felled. The current upsurge in violence has deep roots. A previous generation of militants waged a separatist campaign in the 1970s to reclaim the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat for the Malay-Muslims, who are a majority in this southern region of predominantly Buddhist Thailand.

The three provinces belonged to the Pattani kingdom, which was annexed by Siam, as Thailand was then known, in 1902. Malay-Muslims have, since the annexation, complained of cultural and linguistic discrimination and, later, economic marginalisation.

To change such a mindset, Lt Gen Pichet said, "dialogue and trust" between the military and the people not involved in the militancy are needed. "We are trying to use politics – talking to the people, maintaining a dialogue, helping them in agriculture programmes – to solve this problem."

But does that mean the heavy military presence in Thailand’s deep south will end?

"We have no plans to withdraw," he said. (END/IPS/AP/IP/HD/DV/CR/MMM/TBB/09)

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