Friday, December 16, 2016

Information war far from fair in Thailand's south

Coverage of insurgency in Thailand’s Malay-speaking provinces shows fight far from fair when only one side has microphone

For some weeks, the deputy police commissioner of Thailand, Police Gen. Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, has been making some pretty serious allegations about terrorist attacks in and around Bangkok.

Last week, Ransibrahmanakul announced the arrest of three Malay Muslims from the country’s far South who he said were planning to carry out violent attacks at six locations popular among tourists in and around the capital.

Although all those arrested are from a region where a 13-year separatist insurgency has so far claimed nearly 6,700 lives, mostly local Muslims, the deputy police commissioner insisted that they were not linked to the insurgency.

According to security sources, the three have been in detention of the military -- which has been ruling to country since a 2014 coup -- since October.

They were rounded up after the first was arrested during a blind sweep that saw police take in more than 100 Thai Malay youth and students residing in Bangkok and its vicinity, and then information garnered from the arrest was used to arrest two more people in the south.

On learning of the arrests -- and that some detainees said they were beaten in custody -- the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), a long-standing separatist organization that controls the vast majority of the combatants on the ground, set off a bomb at a food stall in downtown Pattani -- one of the three provinces affected by the insurgency.

The Oct. 24 explosion killed one person and injured 18 other people.

It is still not clear as to why deputy commissioner Ransibrahmanakul decided to announce the arrest of the trio. He has provided little information other than to say that they were out “to create disturbances”.

Ransibrahmanakul has given no explanation as to what organizations the three suspects hailed from, much less their motive, ideology or the methodology behind the planned attacks.

With the trio still in custody -- and little evidence or accusation being presented to back up the arrest -- there is also little to back up any case for their defense.

In the absence of an identifiable spokesman for the separatist militants, the narrative about what conflict and insurgency aim to achieve in the southernmost border provinces is pretty much left to the Thai side to construct.

Since the violence began, just about every incident in the far South has been attributed to the militants, even if the killing was personal in nature. With compensation offered to those aggrieved by insurgency, there has long been a financial motive to tie even the most obvious criminal acts to the insurgents.

Monetary compensation is a tool all too often used by security officials when they abuse their power.

In August 2014, an army-trained paramilitary ranger unit shot dead a 14-year-old Malay Muslim boy riding his motorbike in Narathiwat provinces’s Sri Sakorn district, claiming self defense. After the local community acted with uproar, an extensive police investigation concluded that the handgun was planted on the boy to fabricate evidence.

The army compensated the victim’s family with 500,000 baht ($15,400), but no disciplinary action was taken against the ranger.

Similarly, in October 2014, the military was forced to apologize to a Malay Muslim family in Narathiwat’s Bacho district after a Royal Thai Marine opened fire on their pickup truck traveling on a backroad, killing a ten-year-old girl and wounding the parents.

They were transporting coconuts to a nearby fresh market. The troops said they thought they were transporting insurgents. The local Marine commander issued an apology and compensation was paid but the amount was not made public.

With one side holding a microphone, while there is a genuine absence of an identifiable spokesman for the BRN and the organic, decentralized structure of the insurgent cells, it makes it extremely difficult for researchers and journalists to verify whether specific operations or attacks charged to the militancy are indeed genuine.

Even the identity of the membership of the Dewan Pimpinan Parti (DPP), the BRN’s ruling council, is extremely secretive. The Thai government claims to have a list of DPP members, but BRN cadres -- even those who have left the group and have been working with the government since -- say no one knows for sure.

With the BRN operating an extremely clandestine network, the use of combatants as moles does not necessary mean one can obtain information about cells, or even working knowledge of the unit one step up in the movement’s chain of command.

As one BRN operative noted to Anadolu Agency this week, the cells behind each attack operate on a need-to-know basis. This means combatants not involved in an operation, even if the attack is being carried out in their respective area, will be kept out of the loop to ensure that as little information as possible is leaked.

When asked to verify whether separatist militants had carried out the shooting death of a pregnant lady in Panare district in Pattani on Nov. 26 -- which the government has claimed was insurgency-related -- the BRN source took two days to check the line of command and returned to insist that the killing was not carried out by the BRN.

He did not, however, rule out a personal dispute as a motive.

The source was just as dismissive when asked about the planned six bombs in and around Bangkok that deputy police commissioner Ransibrahmanakul recently alleged were in preparation.

Sources in the official security community said many of the country’s top brass were scratching their heads about Ransibrahmanakul’s claim, speculating if his statement was part of a counter-intelligence effort aimed at discrediting the BRN, even though he did say the suspects were not part of the Malay separatist movement.

After all, alleging that six tourist sites in and around Bangkok were faced with attacks is too serious a matter just to toss out without backing up the claim, they said.

The statement is not the first Ransibrahmanakul has made in recent months to leave analysts with puzzled looks on their faces.

One week prior to the announcement of the attacks, he claimed that Thai Malay Muslim groups from the Malay-speaking South were providing financial help to Daesh.

He then retracted his statement the following day.

Security officials have suggested to Anadolu Agency that the claim was simply an effort aimed to rattle insurgents in the far South or the anti-junta camp.

Although Ransibrahmanakul insisted that the three suspects weren’t part of the insurgency in the far South, the fact that they came from the region makes it extremely difficult for observers to think otherwise.

Few officials have dared to question Ransibrahmanakul given his close personal connection to the country’s security tsar, Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. Government officials have often described Ransibrahmanakul as the minister’s “darling little brother”.

Sources in the international community in Thailand have said they are not convinced by Ransibrahmanakul’s claim of the planned attacks on tourist sites, but that does not necessarily mean that the BRN and other groups have never attacked areas outside the far South.

It is extremely rare but does happen from time to time, usually in reaction to some specific development. These include a December 2013 incident where a twin bomb was placed on the back of a stolen pickup truck behind a police station in the southern tourist enclave of Phuket, but the switch was purposefully set to “off”.

A BRN source has told Anadolu Agency that the idea was simply to show the Thai side what the movement was capable of.

The highly publicized August 2016 attacks in the seven upper provinces of the south were also attributed to the BRN by some Thai security officials, although an official explanation is yet to be made.

A BRN source said the August attacks were not meant to inflict casualties, and the movement has since concluded that they were counter productive because the country's ruling junta set the discourse in the aftermath of the attacks around Thailand’s tourism industry.

The BRN's intention was to discredit the military for a recently passed referendum on a draft constitution that has more or less cemented the army’s place in the country’s politics for the next two decades.

By Don Pathan

The author is an associate with Asia Conflict and Security Consulting, Ltd and is based in Yala, one of Thailand's three southernmost provinces hit by the current wave of insurgency

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