Sunday, January 23, 2011

Thailand - Deadly raid shows little has changed

Attack on Army base reinforces doubts about success of bid to to win 'hearts, minds' in South

Just when things were supposed to get better, the militants in the deep South brutally reminded the government in Bangkok that obtaining peace won't be so easy. On Thursday a group of insurgents stormed Task Force 38 in Narathiwat's Rangae district, killing four and wounding seven other in a daring blitz that jolted the security apparatus with what appeared to be a well-planned attack. Tree trunks and road spikes obstructed hot pursuit. And when reinforcements came, there wasn't much they could do except to pick up the bodies of the dead soldiers and whisk the wounded to Yala Central Hospital, where the best medical facility awaited them.

The militants reportedly took many machine guns and about 5,000 rounds of ammunitions. It that is true, then the logistics behind this attack are in the class of the January 4, 2004 raid on an Army battalion in Joh I Rong, when insurgents made off with more than 350 weapons.

No one is sure what went wrong in Thursday's attack. Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha said "lax security" was the main reason. But then again, it's not very often that the militants charge into a secured camp and begin to pick off their targets.

If anything, it was a slap in the face for the political establishment, as well as security planners, who just days ago boasted how security and justice had improved in the region. There was also talk of lifting Emergency Law from more districts in the restive region, as well as gradually handing back control of the deep South to the Fourth Army Area command.

No one is certain how military analysts reached the conclusion that the security situation had improved. If anything, the attack in Rangae brought into question the kind of logic and rationales the military have been using to quantify success.

The colour-coded system may have worked during the Communist and Malay Muslim separatist insurgency two decades ago, when the rebels controlled pockets of mountain tops and foothills in the deep South. But today the network is so widespread and the insurgents' movement so fluid it is virtually impossible to put a real dent in the movement as a whole.

Already, news reports are coming out quoting officials saying they have information about the identity of the Rangae attackers and that some of them also took part in the Joh I Rong fighting in January 2004. It's interesting how quick and efficient security officials are after an incident. But whatever happened to preventive measures?

Instead of glowing remarks for domestic consumption, perhaps policy-makers and security planners should be more honest instead of looking for ways to score political and brownie points. More than 60,000 security personnel are in the deep South and billions of taxpayers' money has been spent.

Separatist ideology, radicalisation, and recruitment feeds on the authorities' failure to address local grievances - combined with ongoing heavy-handed tactics, human-rights abuses, mistreatment of Muslims, and blatant impunity. These factors are so pronounced in the so-called "red zones" - where insurgents continue to carry out deadly attacks, continue recruitment, and maintain local support despite being "squeezed" by counterinsurgency operations for years. But no one in the government and the army is willing to accept this fact.

Looking at the characteristics of attacks since the last quarter of 2010, we are witnessing a new cycle of insurgency - marked with well-planned and well-coordinated bomb attacks and raids on checkpoints and security bases. This new cycle is driven by more radicalised and hardened insurgents - who seem to have no interest in having a dialogue with the authorities.

At the same time, local Muslims see no difference between the government of Abhisit and his predecessors. Many of them seem to have concluded they will never be treated fairly and sincerely by the authorities. All the talk about winning hearts and minds is just rhetoric. Abhisit's decision to lift the state of emergency in Pattani's Mae Lan district is not a major concession. On the contrary, it is seen as "too little and too late" by the Muslims. It is just window-dressing without having any real impact on improving human rights and justice conditions - which are the core of local grievances.

It's time to think differently and creatively, even if it means asking for help from outside mediators and facilitators. Too many lives have been lost for our so-called leaders to continue as business as usual. They shouldn't let their egos get in the way of a sound policy. The Nation, Bangkok

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