Connect to share and comment

Southeast Asia, explained

Thailand's red zones: who controls them?

Army chief insists efforts to quell Islamic separatists have not failed
Thailand deep south 2012 02 07Enlarge
Thai volunteers participate in a rifle-firing exercise session organized by the Thai Army to prepare villagers to fend off attacks by Islamic separatist insurgents. (MADAREE TOHLALA/AFP/Getty Images)

Who controls the Thai deep south's so-called "red zones," the areas considered by the military to be under the sway of armed Islamic separatists?

In a Bangkok Post interview, Thailand's army chief rejected a widely held notion that efforts to tame the rebellion have failed.

"Is any area taken? Is there any area that soldiers can't enter?" Army Commander Prayuth Chan-Ocha told the newspaper. "About 98% to 99% of locals understand what we're doing."

The army chief is correct: there is no part of Thailand's Muslim-majority south where soldiers can't patrol in their well-armored Humvees fitted with .50-cal machine guns.

But this is a rather low bar to reach. What really matters is what happens inside red zone villages -- there are more than 200 -- when troops aren't around.

As violence escalates, these villages remain places where government headmen fear for their lives, most Thai Buddhists have fled, state-run schools and Buddhist temples must be heavily fortified.

That hardly inspires an image of success, regardless of whether or not troops can enter these red zones, patrol for a few hours and return to their camps.