Peace remains only a dream
Four years ago, the nation was absorbing the terrible details of the Night of the Fires in the deep South. That murderous insurgency now is in its fifth year. It represents the greatest and most deadly failure of governments and the security forces. The ferocity of the southern attacks has gone from bad to worse during the past four years, but there has never been even a sign that it will end. The Thaksin government tried a series of harsh, ill-conceived attacks meant to overwhelm the insurgents. The military-appointed government, supposedly committed to a more conciliatory approach, actually has put in motion equally disturbing policies which seem certain to make the South more dangerous, more deadly and more threatening to the security of the nation and its neighbours.
The current troubles in the South have their roots in issues that have been around a long time. But it was still a total surprise to authorities when trouble broke out on the night of Jan 4, 2004, as Islamist leaders organised gangs in a coordinated series of raids in the far South. The sun rose on a chaotic and far more dangerous border region. Twenty schools were burned in an orgy of arson that served as an early warning that insurgent actions would centre on the most innocent and vulnerable targets in the region. At the same time, another insurgent unit of at least 30 men raided and captured the arms depot of a military base, making off with an estimated 350 small arms and machine guns, and the ammunition to go with them.
Since that night, more than 2,800 people have died as a direct result of the insurgency. Most have been killed in terrorist-type attacks including bombings, targeted murders, drive-by attacks and the like.
Almost all of the attacks have used tactics not often seen previously in Thailand, and apparently imported from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan by Thai men who have trained there or who have contacts via the internet. Most of the victims have been Muslims, as the insurgents sought to terrify their fellow southerners even while trying to destroy government authority. The atrocious insurgent attacks have been totally uncaring of innocent bystanders and often aimed specifically at them.
Unfortunately, some actions of the security forces have seemed poorly planned and undisciplined. The unnecessary and destructive attack by the army against the Krue Se mosque killed 32 men, many of whom were probably insurgents. But the attack was excessive and managed only to alienate the southern people as well as many Thai and foreign Muslims.
Far worse was the brutal putdown of an anti-government demonstration at Tak Bai, resulting in the suffocation deaths of more than 70 ill-treated young men.
No justice has resulted in either case of government and military misconduct. This is important, because Thai Muslims in general and southerners in particular have no sympathy for the murdering gangs of insurgents who claim to be fighting for independence and religion. But neither do southern people identify entirely with the security forces who are stationed in the South to protect them.
Successive governments have had no strategy to deal with the insurgency. After four years of killings, mayhem and army control, ministers and generals alike are clearly incapable of instituting a plan to end the violence. The current tactics of increased troop presence and massive arrests seem to hold little promise. No doubt some insurgents are swept up among the thousands detained, and murders have dropped significantly in recent months. But tension and resentment has increased, and all signs indicate the insurgents may end up recruiting some of the innocent young men when they are released.
The insurgency enters its fifth year as the most violent conflict in all of Southeast Asia. It also poses enormous dangers. Terrorism has waned since the 2001 and 2002 Bali attacks and the 2003 arrest of Jemaah Islamiyah mastermind Hambali.
But Thailand remains both a target and a current supplier of low-scale if not international terrorists in the form of southern insurgents. The next government must come up with a plan to re-establish peace in the South. Otherwise Thais are likely to rate it as a failure no matter what its populist achievements.