BANGKOK — Each week in Thailand’s deep south, new blood is spilled in the name of a forgotten Muslim sultanate.
This guerilla war seems worlds away from Bangkok and Thailand’s neon-soaked coastal playgrounds. But it has ground Thailand’s military to a halt.
The campaign, little known outside the region, is being waged to restore Pattani, a small Islamic kingdom absorbed by Thais in 1908. So entrenched is Thailand’s southern violence that, when decapitated heads tumble across public streets, the killings are reported in passing.
Four such attacks in February nudged the movement toward its 50th recorded beheading. Since 2004 — when the separatist campaign sparked anew — more than 3,300 have died.
Now, as Thailand’s new ruling party plans a hearts-and-minds campaign, the military appears to be digging in.
With southern violence in mind, the Royal Thai Armed Forces is quietly amassing equipment and gear: Russian attack choppers, sleek Israeli assault rifles, armored Ukrainian and South African personnel carriers, and more.
Amidst one of Thailand’s worst-ever economic slumps, the military has set aside $214.6 million for the insurgency this year. It will also maintain a $557.9 million, six-year budget to set up a special infantry division devoted entirely to southern unrest.
The new arms deals signal only a slight step in the right direction, said Zachary Abuza, professor at Boston’s Simmons College and expert on Thailand’s southern violence.
What the soldiers really need, he said, is more training and more guts.
“They need troops willing to take the chase to the insurgents,” said Abuza, who characterized the Thai army’s strategy as a “passive defense.”
“You need rolling checkpoints penetrating the interior. For a while, they’ve had a fair number of troops down there, but you never see them. They never leave the barracks.”
“The ability to infiltrate the interior, where the insurgents hang out, is nil,” he said.
Anonymity defines the separatists, who remain mostly unknown to military leaders. Men sometimes emerge from rubber tree plantations, halt passing motorists, kill them and disappear. Or they ignite remote bombs, wait for police or soldiers to respond and set off secondary bombs hidden nearby.
“The heavy Thai security presence prevents the insurgents (from) massing and going toe-to-toe with the government,” wrote U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Nicholas Vavich of the Naval War College in a briefing on the insurgency. “They prefer hit-and-run operations … specifically aimed at a target audience: the population.”
Separatists have attacked schools and Buddhist temples and have beheaded monks. Twice, in 2005 and 2006, they laced an entire commercial strip in the southern trading hub Hat Yai with explosives. But, typically, they get away — and they seldom attribute their attacks to specific networks.
A March 7 attack was typical of the tactics. Separatists killed two brothers and left behind a note reading “This is a revenge on state officials." So were two late February attacks, in which suspected separatists beheaded a married couple and two soldiers, and simply left authorities to assume their motives.
“The military still has a difficult time protecting itself,” said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch in Pattani province. “Time after time, they’re attacked, but the troops don’t tend to push forwards, or even counterattack. They just try to protect themselves.”
Even as Thailand’s military stockpiles weapons, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, appointed in mid-December, is promising a more sensitive approach.
So far, his remedies have been mostly bureaucratic. Abhisit is establishing a “southern affairs” cabinet, which he will chair. He also promises to review the deep south’s three-month emergency decrees — extended 14 times already — that offer police and soldiers special powers to wiretap, detain suspects and impose curfews.
Military round-ups of young, Muslim men, who typically speak a northern Malay dialect instead of Thai, draw routine censure from groups such as the Asian Human Rights Commission.
Anti-military sentiment coalesced after the 2004 “Tak Bai” incident, named for a small town where protesting Muslim men were bound, beaten and detained. Many were also crammed into army paddy wagons for transport to a local base, only to die en route from the suffocating heat.
In a parallel to the U.S. military’s Abu Ghraib abuses, footage from Tak Bai circulated among Thai Muslims and provoked a furious backlash. Some captured separatists have confessed that the video, available on YouTube, compelled them to join the fight.
The Thai military is now too despised to win hearts and minds, Srisompob said. “The south really needs economic development,” he said, “and a more participatory process. Armed personnel carriers won’t be effective.”
The separatists, Prime Minister Abhisit admits, will likely persist unless the government acknowledges southern poverty and southern Muslims’ Malay-centric culture.
“There are so many military and police in the three (southernmost) provinces that it can’t be a sustainable or long-term solution,” Abhisit told foreign reporters in January. “The only long-term solution must be done through a comprehensive package that covers well beyond the security dimensions.”
But as Thailand’s government promises sensitivity, and the military cuts arms deals across the globe, the violence roils. Since Abhisit’s Dec. 15 appointment, Abuza has counted more than 80 killings, 34 bombings and five beheadings.
“The soldiers can’t protect the people … or themselves,” Srisompob said. “It’s like they’re just concerned with their own survival.”
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A new arsenal: Amassing arms to tame the south
As the Islamic insurgency roils, Thailand’s Royal Armed Forces has bought or plans to buy the following:
Six Russian Mi-17 V-5 attack helicopters: $9 million per chopper. Can be outfitted with laser-guided missile launchers and swiveling gun turrets. Carries up to 30 troops.
85 REVA III 4x4 armed personnel carriers: $310,000 per vehicle. Made in South Africa, this vehicle was designed with Iraqi conditions in mind. Can withstand rocket-propelled grenades and land mines. Uses smooth, rounded edges in vehicle body, which are less likely to blow apart than welded edges.
96 Ukrainian BTR-3E1 armed personnel carriers: $1.2 million per vehicle. Often confused for light tanks, the heavily armored, eight-wheeled vehicles pack a 30mm heavy-machine gun, 7.62mm machine gun and more.
15,000 Israeli TAR-21 assault rifles and 500 Negev light machine guns: $34.5 million. These sleek, modern-looking guns will replace aging M-16 stocks.
Other GlobalPost stories from Thailand:
Bangkok is sinking
McDreaming in Thailand