Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Thai insurgency enters new phase

YALA - Following a surge of violence over Ramadan and further insurgent attacks since then, the Thai government's recent announcement that ill-starred peace talks between Bangkok and representatives of south Thailand's dominant separatist faction have been postponed indefinitely was almost anti-climactic.

Since the woefully mismanaged peace process began in late February, propelled by the political imperatives of the ruling Peua Thai party-led government in Bangkok and the administration of Najib Razak in Malaysia, neither of the main belligerents - the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front, or BRN) and the Thai military - has evinced much enthusiasm for the talks.

Even before the suspension of the process, Royal Thai Army Commander in Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha had already issued pointed orders to step up "pro-active" operations of the type that on October 5 saw security forces close in on insurgent commander Abdul Rohing Da-eso, nicknamed Black Pele, and kill him in a shoot-out.

Four days later, insurgents responded with a synchronized wave of pre-dawn bombings and arson attacks that struck all four affected border provinces - Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla - and faced no difficulty penetrating city centers. An unprecedented display of co-ordination, geographical reach and industrial-strength standardization of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the operation was a sharp reminder to both the security forces and the civil population that the revolt's capacity for hard-hitting offensives remains undented.

But as the violence continues unabated, the struggle for the future of southern Thailand is undergoing marked changes largely obscured by the attention accorded to the twists and turns of the limping peace process. Recent interviews with a range of southern sources, including security force officials, local journalists and individuals with direct connections to the insurgency, suggest the conflict has now entered a new and more complex phase, as political factors require both sides to calibrate their military tactics.

Since it gathered momentum in January 2004, the southern insurgency can be broadly divided into four phases. Between 2004 to mid-2007 a rapidly escalating wave of insurgent attacks fueled by the disastrous military excesses of the Krue Se and Tak Bai massacres left Bangkok floundering in its efforts to contain a conflict it hardly understood.

From mid-2007 into 2010, a second phase saw aggressive counter-insurgency sweeps and round-ups which severely disrupted insurgent village level organization and mobilization while providing the Thai military a far clearer idea of its shadowy enemy and the "people's war" strategy BRN was prosecuting. In the face of the military counter-offensive, insurgent attacks of all kinds dropped sharply as the underground struggled to adapt and then slowly to rebuild.

A third phase of the conflict between early 2011 and early 2013 was marked by the clear emergence of a more tightly organized and increasingly professionalized guerrilla underground. Incident numbers did not rise appreciably but the BRN campaign unleashed with renewed confidence over those two years was more lethal and dangerous than any seen earlier.

By contrast, the current and fourth phase of the conflict is being impacted by two new factors which are demanding major tactical changes on both sides. First is the undoubted influence of the peace talks on military operations. The second is the growing traction government counter-insurgency measures - and in particular intelligence operations - are gaining. The result is that in a battle space that has always been narrow, the war is now becoming increasingly close-fought with a sharp rise in combatant casualties on both sides.

The most striking change in insurgent tactics this year has involved a shift towards focused, hard-hitting attacks on security forces using both improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and occasionally ambushes. The string of operations this year using large and very large IEDs capable of destroying vehicles with heavy casualties, and ambushes in which entire patrols have been wounded or killed represents a new tactic. It is mirrored in the less newsworthy but more widespread use of smaller roadside bombs against foot patrols.

Focused targeting of security forces achieves several objectives. Most importantly, it underscores to the BRN's popular support base and to the region's majority Malay-Muslim community more generally that (unenthusiastic) participation in exploratory peace talks in no way implies any lessening of the movement's resolve or capabilities in hitting the security apparatus viewed as enforcing a "colonial" occupation of the border region - let alone a readiness for a quick-fix peace deal.

At the same time, the attacks also serve to reinforce the psychological and even physical divide between Muslim civilians - many of whom already view the military with askance - and an increasingly wary security forces whose village outreach programs are now frequently high-risk forays into enemy territory. Finally, and not least, daily explosions and ambushes are also raising levels of risk, stress and casualties faced by the security forces which, in turn, impact on morale.

There has also been no let-up in insurgent targeted killing of those suspected or known to be working for the state. This relentless culling of local Muslim civilians has become a hallmark of the Malay insurgency in southern Thailand; its intensity and duration has few, if any, parallels in other modern guerrilla conflicts. It relates directly to the reality that in south Thailand the insurgents operate primarily in and from politically-contested villages close to security force units where they are continually at risk. This brutal dynamic was neatly encapsulated in the killing of Black Pele in a security force raid on October 5, followed less than 24 hours later by the shooting murder of the alleged informant who betrayed him.

New insurgent balance
This year, the separatist movement also appears to be attempting to strike a new balance between the military and political aspects of its campaign. After two decades of tight clandestinity it is now showing a new interest in communicating with a Muslim civilian population that to date has generally been taken for granted.

The peace process has again been the most immediate driver behind this new and still tentative outreach to communicate directly with the civilian population over the heads of Malaysian 'facilitators' steering the talks in Kuala Lumpur. To this extent, the shift marks the political flip-side of stepped up attacks against the Thai military.

At ground level, notably during Ramadan, it has prompted coordinated campaigns involving simple cloth banners upholding 'ownership of the land' and inveighing against the alleged perfidy of the Thai state. But the growing salience of social media in the region has also made YouTube a useful tool to project both political statements and demands, as well as military recruitment propaganda in the form of videos showing training and in September, for the first time, something close to combat footage.

In a broader sense, however, the interest in communication has also been driven by the emergence in the last three years of a newly assertive civil society in the region and a process of popular politicization it is driving. Entirely lacking in the first two phases of the conflict, a civil society 'third force' has carved out a new and important space between the Thai state - engaged in a slow, rearguard defense of the status quo - and the violent, secessionist agenda of BRN's armed struggle.

Civil society organizations including lawyers, students, teachers, journalists and former detainees have been active in mobilizing wide-ranging debate on potential solutions to the conflict. These have included proposals for various models of special administrative zones and autonomy, which have also blended into public flirtation with the "M-word" - merdeka (independence) - that is now no longer taboo.

Insofar as it undermines the legitimacy of the embattled status quo, Muslim civil society represents an objective ally for BRN. To this extent, there can be little doubt that BRN's notably hard-line political and youth wings are seeking to influence, infiltrate and manipulate various above-ground groups in what, in the traditional communist lexicon of subversion, is known as "united front" strategy.

Far less clear, however, is the degree to which the dynamism and independence of civil society groups also pose potential longer-term threats to the armed separatist underground. After more than a decade of military heavy-lifting, BRN has yet to articulate a coherent political vision for the region's future as a separate entity, let alone work towards building an above-ground political party.

Indeed, the poverty of separatist political thinking has resulted in a clear imbalance between, on the one hand, BRN's operationally cohesive and highly effective guerrilla and youth wings focused on the immediate military conflict, and, on the other, the weakness of a largely invisible, inarticulate and possibly divided political leadership grouped in and around its Malaysia-based ruling council. The extent to which that imbalance risks creating what some analysts are already positing as a complete disconnect between a hard-line military command structure operating largely independently and a weak, fragmented political leadership is a relevant question.

The changing face of the insurgency has necessitated the cessation this year of two high-profile tactics that in the 2011-2012 period constituted the cutting edge of the revolt. The first has been the car-bomb or vehicle-borne IED (VBIED), the use of which rose sharply from three incidents in 2010, to seven in 2011 and then 13 in 2012. This year, in sharp contrast, there have been only two attacks, both at the beginning of the year.

As military sources in the South argue, the suspension of car-bomb operations and the drop in the deployment of motorcycle bombs reflects an interest in avoiding civilian casualties in attacks which generally take place in urban environments and are, by their nature, indiscriminate even when directed against security force or civil administration targets. The large IEDs used in car-bombs are now being turned to what BRN appears to see as more politically useful attacks on military vehicles.

At the same time, some analysts argue that the process of preparing and executing car-bomb attacks - from the initial hi-jacking of a vehicle, through its make-over with new plates and paint-job, and finally its deployment in an operation - has become increasingly risky given intelligence-based security forces' counter-measures.

A recent example which pointed clearly to improved fusion of intelligence involved a pick-up truck reported by police as stolen in Bacho district, Narathiwat, in the late morning of September 19. The vehicle was spotted early the following morning by an alert army foot patrol in Raman district of Yala, triggering a clash with a group of insurgents.

The year's second major tactical shift has involved the suspension of large assaults on security forces camps by guerrillas concentrating in platoon strength (30-40 fighters) or more. Started in early 2011 and pursued through 2012, these operations were evidently intended to raise the level of conflict from hit-and-run raids to semi-regular warfare, while also seizing significant quantities of arms and ammunition in the process.

Based on the illusion that such complex, manpower-intensive operations were feasible without the space provided by insurgent-controlled "liberated areas", these assaults were inherently risky from the outset. They also relied heavily on lack of vigilance on the part of the security forces - once common, but something which can no longer be taken for granted. The tactic finally came to grief in February this year when on the basis of good intelligence Thai Marine Corps troops in Bacho district broke up an attempted assault and killed at least 16 guerrillas.

Since this debacle, the guerrillas have shifted their operational emphasis to an undoubtedly more effective tactic: stepped up ambushes of mobile patrols carried out in section-strength (10-15 fighters). Requiring less time for planning and preparation than large operations, such attacks are also more secure in that they require concentrating fewer fighters against targets which are mobile and thus more vulnerable than static defensive positions. The record also suggests smaller operations are more effective in inflicting casualties and seizing weapons.

September alone provided grim evidence of this with a five-man police patrol wiped out in Thung Yang Daeng district, Pattani, on the 11th, with nine firearms seized; three Rangers killed and one wounded in Yarang district of the same province on the 12th, with three rifles and one pistol looted; and an ambush of a four-vehicle EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) convoy in Yi-ngor district, Narathiwat, on the 27th in which three policemen were severely wounded. Involving an estimated 20 fighters and two IEDs - one intended to target reinforcements (but which was disarmed) - the Yi-ngor ambush was a fairly complex operation.

Intelligence response
As has been the case since 2004, the Thai military remains strategically focused on containing the conflict until a political solution can be won or, rather more likely, negotiated. As the "talks" in Kuala Lumpur lurch towards what look remarkably like real negotiations over far-reaching BRN demands, the military is also monitoring closely the peace process - and with evident apprehension.

Tactically, however, security forces are this year seeking to take the fight to the enemy more than ever before, with successes hinging on a growing emphasis on intelligence operations. For over a decade, intelligence - or the transparent lack of it - has constituted the Achilles heel of the military's response to the insurgency.

An institutional culture resistant to sharing intelligence across services, particularly at the level of local district task forces, remains a problem, according to sources. But intelligence gathering capabilities have increased exponentially and are apparently becoming far better integrated. The result is that the separatist revolt now faces a far more aware, alert and agile opponent than at any time in the past.

Efforts to improve human intelligence, or "humint", by recruiting and training a growing number of Malay Muslim sources tasked with reporting on rebel movements has long been an important element of the campaign, according sources on both sides of the conflict. An ongoing succession of targeted raids on rebel safe houses, hide-outs and arms caches based on tip-offs are clear evidence of this. The killing of 'Black Pele' on October 5 was merely one in a string of such successes. It was followed on October 15 by another clash in Thung Yang Daeng district of Pattani in which three more insurgents were killed.

In addition to humint sources, the intelligence campaign is also being driven by technology and its improved integration into a multi-pronged thrust. Sophisticated post-incident ballistics analysis and the detailed studies of the use and movement of specific weapons have provided important insights into the tactical organization of the insurgency.

Similar technical skills are being used in the response to the guerrillas' most potent weapon, the IED. Post-incident analysis by EOD teams of IED parts or disarmed devices similarly provide valuable insights into both trends, sources of component parts and the signatures of individual bomb-makers. More efficient forensics has also been a factor: the exploitation of DNA samples from detained individuals, IEDs, and other items is now standard operating procedure.

In southern Thailand as elsewhere around the world, the analysis and exploitation of the signals and records of mobile phones used by insurgents, their contacts and family members has also been a crucial tool in the counter-insurgency. In the past two years, this element of the campaign has been reinforced by the induction of sophisticated mobile phone location technology now used by new police "special equipment squads" backed by tactical assault teams.

Finally, the installation of CCTV cameras region-wide and exploitation of surveillance footage has become an increasingly important element of the campaign. The threat posed to insurgent operations by CCTV has been pointedly underscored by the manner in which over the past two years the CCTV camera has become a central target of insurgent arson operations in much the same way that school buildings constituted the primary focus of arson attacks in the 2004-2007 phase of the conflict.

Following a sharp drop in arson attacks in the 2008 to 2011 period - when on average there were only between three and eight incidents each month - attacks have recently escalated dramatically to a rate of 44.5 incidents per month in the first half of the year. Many of them have targeted CCTVs.

None of these technologies is in itself new, but cumulative impact of their extended deployment and integration over the last two to three years has undoubtedly been significant. The result has been a markedly improved capacity for detailed mapping of the insurgency's human terrain. Increased understanding of local insurgent command structures and networks has played back into offensive operations in terms of arrests, raids, and, when necessary, according to well-placed security force sources, the selective elimination of known insurgent leaders or key operatives.

Despite mounting pressure, however, the southern insurgency continues to display a remarkable capacity to improvise, adapt and strike in a manner that has rendered the three provinces largely ungovernable and shows little sign of weakening. The old adage that a guerrilla who is not losing is winning probably holds as true in southern Thailand as anywhere. If so, the central question in the coming few years may turn on whether BRN and in particular its hard-line military wing have any compelling interest in negotiating the shape of victory before the political and administrative future of Thailand as a whole is far clearer than is the case today.

Anthony Davis is a Bangkok-based security analyst for IHS-Jane's. Courtesy Joyo News

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