Trapped in political limbo in Thai south

It was mid-afternoon as receptionist Rosuening Lubokkmae began her shift at the Holiday Hill hotel in Betong, a Thai town near the border with Malaysia.

She spied a pick-up truck parked outside, its headlights broken. Something did not feel right.

Instinctively, the native of Narathiwat province, where separatist violence flares up regularly, slid behind the counter.

The bellboy went out for a look. So did a curious Malaysian tourist, hoping to bag a winning lottery number from the truck's registration plate. The receptionist shooed the customer upstairs.

Minutes later, a powerful blast ripped through the hotel. The bellboy died, along with a papaya salad hawker across the road.

Southern Thailand's long-running Malay-Muslim insurgency claimed one of its most prominent scalps that afternoon in July.

Betong - unlike most other parts of the Malay-dominated southern border provinces, which cover Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and a section of Songhkhla - is a Chinese-majority town where Malaysians head for good food, cool weather and weekend raunch at the many pubs. Until that day, it had largely escaped the violence that had killed more than 6,000 people in the past decade.

The blast sent an ominous note amid uncertainty over Malaysia- facilitated peace talks launched by the Yingluck Shinwatra government last year, which stalled and remained in limbo under Thailand's post-coup military government. Insurgent attacks are widening and are increasingly aimed at civilians rather than just officials or security personnel.

No political solution

Coup-maker Prayuth Chan-ocha, now Prime Minister, will visit Malaysia next month to introduce himself to his counterpart Najib Razak. Both are expected to touch on the peace talks.

In the "deep south", as the restive region is called, locals have long felt oppressed by Thailand's Buddhist majority and lament the silence on efforts to find a political solution that will address this issue. The Yingluck administration was open to granting greater political autonomy, but the current military government is not.

The new army commander overseeing the region, Lieutenant-General Prakarn Chonlayut, thinks there is a winning formula for peace.

It involves handing over security duties to paramilitaries and state-supported village militias, relying more on conventional criminal law rather than emergency or martial law to deal with suspects, and also gradually moving non-local troops out of the heavily militarised region.

"We will cut children's hair," he declared to stifled laughter from his men during a press conference at a Songkhla army camp on Nov 15. The military will also paint mosques and help in development work, in a bid to win hearts and minds among the two million people in the region.

Lt-Gen Prakarn did not address the question of whether his pull-back plan would free up resources to flush out insurgents. But a special force detachment commander, who asked not to be named, tells The Straits Times: "We train the civilian forces to do defensive work, so we can focus on the offensive missions."

There has been discontent over what some see as overly aggressive military action. During a raid in Pattani on Nov 14, soldiers surrounded and killed two suspected militants after exchanging gunfire. Residents were angry with the soldiers for ramming an armoured vehicle into a house and spraying it with bullets, reported the Khaosod daily.

This kind of force has "not been used in two or three years", says Ms Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, the director of Cross Cultural Foundation, which tackles human rights issues in the region.

She says the military has also used martial law - now effective nationwide - to detain suspects and interrogate them for up to seven days without charge, putting them at risk of torture.

If a recent court decision is anything to go by, those ill-treated by the state might find it harder now to seek redress. In September, the Pattani provincial court rejected an appeal to look into an alleged torture case because the claim was made under an article in the 2007 Constitution that was abrogated after the May 22 coup.

Impassive locals

Under these circumstances, locals are either impassive or even wary of the plan to expand the role of paramilitary forces and village militias, who are considered inferior in training and discipline to professional soldiers.

"It doesn't feel very different to me," says Pattani-based university lecturer Amini Sa-idi, who fears that relying on military operations without a parallel attempt at peace talks "may expand the problem".

According to the Internal Security Operations Command, there are about 11,000 soldiers in the deep south, 40 per cent of whom come from outside the region. The security forces are complemented by more than 14,000 paramilitary rangers, as well as 8,000 members of the Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC) under the charge of the Ministry of Interior. Each village, meanwhile, has 20 or more civilians who are armed and trained by the state to protect their own neighbourhood.

The army drew flak earlier this month after disclosing that it had distributed 2,700 Heckler & Koch HK-33 assault rifles to the VDC. In response, it argues that the recipients were not civilians but professional security personnel, and that the guns and ammunition are securely stowed when not in use.

On the ground, however, the picture can be different. At a mosque in Yala, a 22-year-old former waiter keeps watch over a gathering of schoolchildren and officials, with a rifle slung across his loose khaki VDC uniform.

"I feel more confident now - the gun I had before this was a bit slow," he tells The Straits Times. Asked where he keeps it when off duty, he says: "At home."

Just what is it like to grow up in this environment? Ms Shahariah Tehae, a teacher at Ban Paku primary school in Pattani, says: "There are bombings here and bombings there - the children feel this is normal for them."

Yet, even these children broke down and cried when a section of their school was burnt to the ground by militants last month. They now make do by sub-dividing classrooms with whiteboards.

Schools and teachers - symbolic of cultural oppression by the Thai state - have long been targets of southern militants. That night last month, six schools were simultaneously set on fire. One month later, as officials tried to show reporters how they had beefed up security there, little girls in tudung sauntered nonchalantly among the men sporting flak jackets and helmets and carrying assault rifles.

"We need a weapon-free zone!" declares Dr Pechdau Tohmeena, the director of a state mental health centre in Pattani, in exasperation. Years of conflict have left a deep imprint on the next generation. "When we ask children from the south to draw a picture, they always draw bombs and soldiers. The children from Bangkok draw smiling faces and flowers."

Meanwhile, residents clamour for guns, although these are useless against hidden bombs.

With no clear end to the conflict in sight, locals learn to make peace with the constant danger.

"I keep a lookout for anything suspicious," says Betong shopkeeper Konkot Vasoontraruk, 58. "But I live day by day. I leave my fate to the gods."

This article was first published on Nov 24, 2014.
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