Mourners carry the body of Aduldej Chenae, deputy chairman of Pattani Islamic Committee, at his funeral in Pattani on June 10, 2018. Aduldej was leaving a mosque in Sai Buri district when he was shot by gunmen. (Photo: AFP)
A long-running Islamist insurgency in Thailand’s southernmost region has claimed more lives as Thai army troops shot dead five suspected Muslim insurgents in three shootouts in recent days.
The army said it had launched a manhunt against people suspected of planting a roadside bomb that killed a security officer on Aug. 13 in the predominantly Muslim province of Pattani in Thailand’s southern border region alongside Malaysia.
The first battle occurred in Yarang district on Aug. 14 when two suspected insurgents were killed. One was identified as a leading member of the Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK) insurgent movement, while the other was an operational member.
On Aug. 15 morning, when soldiers resumed the operation, an exchange of fire took place in which two suspected insurgents were shot dead. Later that day another clash occurred and one suspect was killed.
Sporadic outbursts of violence have bedeviled the lives of locals in three restive Muslim-majority provinces in Thailand’s southernmost region where an Islamist separatist movement has been seeking since 2004 to gain independence for local ethnic Malay Muslims by seceding from a predominantly Buddhist nation.
More than 7,000 people, both Buddhists and Muslims, have died in tit-for-tat violence between insurgents and Thai security forces.
Insurgents have targeted Buddhist monks, teachers and government officials in attacks, while Thai security forces have been accused by rights groups of engaging in extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, unlawful arrests and the torture of suspected militants.
The Thai army has repeatedly sought to offer an olive branch to the prominent yet shadowy insurgent group that calls itself Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front), asking its leaders to the negotiating table, but its overtures have been rebuffed.
The insurgent group has accused the Thai government of failing to try and negotiate in good faith.
Last year Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) demanded that alleged insurgents be released from custody before peace negotiations could restart.
However, Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, a mercurial former army general, snubbed the demand. “How could they possibly suggest something like that?” Prawit asked.
In response, a senior BRN member labeled the Thai state “an oily, slippery eel.”
On Aug. 17, shortly after a gunfight between suspected insurgents and Thai troops, Lt. Gen. Pornsak Poonsawat, the commander of Thailand’s 4th Army based in the area, met some 1,000 local leaders, including village chiefs, at a university in insurgency-plagued Narathiwat province and asked them to help work for reconciliation.
However, observers say that there is deeply entrenched animosity in a large segment of the local ethnic Malay Muslim population towards the Thai state, largely owing to security forces’ heavy-handed and often indiscriminate counterterrorism operations.
The administration of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief, “has followed previous Thai governments in dismissing the root causes of ethnic Malay Muslims’ grievances, specifically a lack of accountability for the government’s human rights abuses in the region,” argues Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.
“Stories of state-sponsored abuses can be heard in every Malay Muslim village across the southern border provinces. The government’s counterinsurgency operations have countenanced extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture.”
However, the insurgents themselves need to share some of the blame for continued hostilities in the troubled region, the rights advocate stresses.
“The BRN routinely commits serious laws-of-war violations that have caused numerous civilian deaths and injuries to both ethnic Thai Buddhists and Malay Muslims,” Sunai says.
“Insurgents have made cruel and legally unjustifiable claims that attacks on civilians are permitted because they are part of the Thai state or because the BRN’s radical interpretation of Islam permits such attacks.”