Sunday, July 4, 2010

Powerful Roadside bomb kills 5 in Thailand - Moving mountains in Thailand's restive South

A POWERFUL roadside bomb went off Thursday evening in Narathiwat's Rusoh district, killing a soldier, two paramilitary rangers and two local officials travelling in a vehicle. Two men have been arrested in connection with the Rusoh attack. Their homes were raided and police came across explosive materials.

The following day in neighbouring Yala's Yaha district, a similar incident took place. Three soldiers were killed instantly. Like the pickup truck they were travelling in, their bodies were ripped to pieces beyond recognition. The homemade bomb with a cooking-gas tank as its canister was buried under the tarmac. It was reportedly set off by a mobile phone.

In Bangkok, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was jolted by the apparent spike in attacks. Naturally, he wanted to know what to make of it. The instant analysis from security units on the ground sounded like a broken record - that the insurgents were trying to reclaim the headlines now that the red-shirt demonstrators have left the streets of Bangkok.

Others, including Narathiwat Governor Thanon Vejkorakanont, said the attacks on security officials were part of the insurgents' strategy to terrify villagers because the state has succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of local Muslims.
Yala Governor Grisada Boonrach, who appeared to make the most sense, said the violence has to be put into perspective. The series of grenade attacks in Yala in mid-June qualified as a step-up in attacks because the insurgents took their campaign of violence to soft targets in the city.

The recent roadside bombing in Yaha, as well as the ambush in Banang Sata yesterday that killed one and injured four paramilitary rangers on foot patrol, on the other hand, was an attack waiting to happen. The bombs were already in place to be detonated. All the insurgents had to do was wait until a military truck or a patrolling unit goes over it. Indeed, being the country's prime minister, Abhisit had every right to be concerned. But the attack in Narathiwat's Rusoh district received special attention from a handful of security planners who have been toying with the idea of establishing a ceasefire agreement with a local insurgent cell. The idea was to turn three districts in Narathiwat, a province with 13 districts altogether, into a ceasefire zone.

Fortunately for this highly hush-hush plan, Rusoh was not part of the three districts to go green. In other words, the plan is still on. The idea of asking the insurgents to respect certain aspect of the rules of engagement is nothing new, however. The Nation has learned that the assassination of Dora-mae Da-che, 51, also known as Ustaz Mae, in Banang Sata on June 7 was a violation of such a "gentlemen's agreement". The militants on the ground had resorted to hitting soft targets that Governor Grisada was talking about.

The revenge attack appeared to have been carried out in areas that the ustaz have influence over. The Yaha attack, however, appeared to be the work of a separate cell. It was not necessarily in retaliation for Mae's death.

Over the past years, exiled separatist leaders with links to the militants on the ground, locally known as juwae, or "fighters" in the local Malay dialect, have tossed around the idea of creating a "green zone" with Thai authorities. But for various reasons, these initiatives have not succeeded in gaining traction.

Observers familiar with the ongoing insurgency in the deep South say the problem with such an initiative is that both sides have been aiming too high - thus the failure to get such a humongous task off the ground. Others say the absence of support from the military's top brass and policymakers in Bangkok has made it difficult to move such initiatives into the policy sphere.

But this time around, Army chief Gen Anupong Paochinda was said to have given his blessing to the idea of a ceasefire agreement, at least for certain pockets in the restive region, such as the three districts in Narathiwat. If it succeeded, it could lay the foundation for future agreements in other pockets in the deep South.

Indeed, confidence building appears to be the name of the game at this particular juncture when just about everything else has failed to put a dent in the insurgency. The overall number of attacks may have gone down but the intensity remains, as the recent roadside ambushes have shown.

But no one is holding his breath, of course, at least not all the juwae anyway. The degree of ferocity behind the recent attacks suggests that the militants in one cell are not letting up despite whatever agreement a neighbouring cell may have reached with Thai authorities through whatever channel.

Given the organic and bottom-heavy nature of today's generation of insurgent network on the ground, moving these individual agreements to new heights may be very well like moving mountains. By DON PATHAN The Nation, Bangkok

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