PATTANI - Thailand's latest military coup has finally closed the door on the on-again, off-again debate over whether peace talks aimed at addressing a decade of separatist violence in the southernmost region of the country were over or merely stalled. They can now be officially pronounced dead and buried.
On the Thai state's side of the divide, the May 22 coup and swift purge of senior officials most closely associated with the talks initiated by former prime minister Yingkluck Shinawatra's administration drove the final nails into the coffin of a process already crippled by political changes at the top of the National Security Council (NSC), the point agency for the talks which began in February last year.
Having already turned its back on the Malaysian-facilitated process in Kuala Lumpur, the separatist movement meanwhile was digging a deep grave for peace prospects through a rolling military offensive that sowed panic across several southern cities. The May onslaught served both to underscore the rebels' return to the targeting of urban areas that had been off-limits during the talks and their apparent determination to cripple the economy in the contested border provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat.
After months of governmental dysfunction caused by debilitating street protests in the Thai capital, the current concentration of power in military hands in Bangkok on the one hand and the emergence of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front, or BRN) as the dominant force in the revolt in the south on the other has raised hopes among optimists for a reboot of the peace process and a return to substantive negotiations between parties with real authority.
But with hardliners skeptical of last year's initiative now firmly in the saddle on both sides of the conflict, the demise of the so-called "KL process" and the recent army putsch seem more likely to exacerbate than dampen the violence. As one foreign analyst with many years experience in the region reflected: "It's worth speculating that this may not be moving in a positive direction at all."
Thai military assessments of the southern situation in the aftermath of the coup will inevitably reach at least two uncomfortable conclusions. First, at the political level, the peace process initiated by the Yingluck government proved a broad win for BRN. Notwithstanding the group's clear reluctance to commit either its real leaders or its political resolve to the talks, it walked away with several gains at the Thai state's expense.
To the chagrin of the military, the high-profile dialogue won BRN national and international recognition and legitimacy as the central player in the revolt, a genie that will now be difficult to put back into the bottle. The movement's skillful use of social media allowed it to seize the initiative with a package of hard-line demands that effectively staked out the parameters for any future negotiations. Unprepared and ill-informed, the Thai panel headed by NSC secretary general Lieutenant General Paradorn Pattanathabut was left looking weak and reactive under a harsh media spotlight.
Beyond that, the peace process worked to BRN's advantage in finally laying to rest the long-debated and clearly crucial question of insurgent command-and-control, namely whether BRN's political wing grouped in and around the movement's central council, or shura, could exercise control over forces in the field? The answer came in response to the Thai side's repeated appeals to reduce the violence and spare innocents. A movement committed to armed struggle, BRN had no interest in reducing the violence, but for most of 2013 it was willing to redirect it.
Through the year, the focus of operations across the three provinces shifted sharply to military targets in rural and semi-rural areas with a consequent rise in security force casualties. High-profile attacks in urban areas likely to entail civilian "collateral damage" abruptly ceased. The use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) or car-bombs generally used in urban environments altogether ceased between March 1 and December 22, 2013. Following 13 VBIED incidents in 2012, there were only three in 2013 - before the peace talks had begun and after they had effectively collapsed.
At the same time, following a stinging reverse in February 2013 when insurgents lost at least 16 fighters in a disastrous attempt to overrun a Marine Corps base in Bacho district of Narathiwat, there was an immediate and complete suspension of large assaults involving anything between 30 and 100 combatants. Such attacks gathered pace in 2011 and 2012; there has notably been none since the Bacho debacle.
Neither of these shifts happened by chance. Rather, they were the result of strategic directives carried out by forces on the ground. Indeed, BRN emerged from the peace talks period as an organization which, in the context of a decentralized insurgency, appears more cohesive militarily and politically than many other rebel groups in geographically larger and socially more diverse theaters of conflict such as Afghanistan or Syria.
The second broad conclusion in any current assessment of the insurgency relates to the manner in which BRN's capacity for strategic-level command-and-control is tailoring gradually growing military capabilities to specific political objectives. This is not new but was loudly underscored during April and May with the rebels' rolling "back to the cities" offensive.
Evidently planned at the highest political and military levels, this wave of coordinated operations targeted the urban economy and shattered any residual sense of security city-dwellers may still have held. Predictably, it relied heavily on VBIEDs, both car-bombs and the poor man's car-bomb, the motorcycle-bomb. According to well-placed sources, it also involved a batch of newly inducted youths who had returned from training abroad with no outstanding security profiles.
In early April, the rebels struck Yala first, with two days of bomb attacks in the city center that caused significant economic damage. Relative quiet during the rest of that month was followed on May 6 by twin blasts in Hat Yai city: a major car-bomb outside the main police station and a motorcycle bomb near a 7-Eleven convenience store. One week later, on May 11 and 12, a sustained wave of attacks struck both Narathiwat and Yala provinces with two towns in Narathiwat - Sungai Kolok and Sungai Padi - suffering the brunt of the violence.
The north-south railway line linking Hat Yai and the southern border terminus at Sungai Kolok was cut two days later by blasts on bridges that suspended services for a fortnight. On the evening of May 24, in the broadest wave of urban attacks in the insurgency to date, bombers struck petrol stations, 7-Eleven convenience stores and the electricity grid cutting power and water to large areas of Pattani city for up to two days. Three died and over 60 were wounded.
It is unclear whether this upsurge in violence was intended merely to emphasize the end of any peace or to exploit the political chaos in Bangkok; or both. Whatever the motivation, the offensive represents a serious challenge to military planners.
First, the intensity of operations in the short space of two months was unprecedented. The insurgency has repeatedly mounted coordinated operations before, including one coinciding with Lunar, or Chinese, New Year celebrations in February 2007 which also blacked out parts of Pattani city. But never before have attacks followed so closely upon another in a manner that was almost certainly planned as a strategic whole.
Second was the sheer number of improvised explosive devices deployed. According to IHS-Jane's statistics, May saw the largest number of IED incidents of any month in the conflict to date: 77 involving 90 separate devices. That was a rise from a monthly average of 27.6 incidents in 2013 and 23.3 in the first quarter of this year. More of a worry than the frequency of the explosive attacks, however, is the steady increase in the size of the bombs.
In earlier years of the conflict, the overwhelming majority of devices weighed less than 10 kilograms, with most around 5kg or less. A small number of incidents involved larger bombs packed into fire-extinguisher or cooking gas tanks which mostly targeted military vehicles.
This year, however, large devices in cooking gas tanks and metal pipes weighing around 20kg - most recently used to topple concrete electricity pylons - have become the new norm. Car-bombs meanwhile now usually involve "packages" of two cooking gas tanks weighing at least 50kg and occasionally over 80kg. This trend points directly to stepped up sourcing of component parts (primarily ammonium nitrate and containers); an apparently higher rate of production at multiple points; and an evidently efficient distribution network.
That said, the April-May urban-oriented offensive caused relatively few casualties. May - the month with the highest number of IED incidents to date - saw a sharp drop in violent fatalities to 31 from a monthly average of 48 in 2013 and 50 in the first quarter of 2014. This was due mainly to bombings targeting economic infrastructure rather than the civilian population, which even in the cities is substantially Malay-Muslim.
Concern over civilian casualties was particularly clear in the Pattani attacks of May 24, when bombers tasked with attacking convenience stores and petrol stations either phoned in warnings or themselves shouted out to bystanders to clear the area.
Such warnings speak directly to the nature of the insurgency BRN sees itself as waging - a "people's war" shaped largely by Maoist strategies but one in which the insurgent movement has been unable for geographical and military reasons to build "liberated areas" where it can exert direct political control over the civilian population.
As the renewed conflict drags into a second decade, BRN critically needs to popularize its goal of independence (or at least self-determination) beyond its relatively narrow base of active supporters and sympathizers into the wider Malay-Muslim population.
To this end, the "Movement", as it has become known, appears to be increasing its efforts to communicate the simple message of Patani Merdeka, or independent Patani. At one level, the past year has seen a notable increase in the use of graffiti spray painted on roads or written on cloth banners, both in Malay and Thai, denigrating the Thai state and proclaiming "Patani Merdeka".
Sometimes these are low-risk stand-alone initiatives at a few adjacent locations; other times the graffiti accompanies a bomb attack. Occasionally, however, the propaganda push involves large-scale coordinated operations aimed at planting the germ of a subversive idea. On February 7, at the height of the political dysfunction in Bangkok, Malay language banners were hung at 105 locations across all four insurgency-affected provinces declaring pointedly: "If Siam [as Thailand was formerly known] cannot govern its own country, how then it can govern the Patani-Malay nation?"
At another level, popularizing the separatist message has relied on a classic tool of modern revolutionary warfare: united front strategy or the infiltration and co-opting of potentially sympathetic above-ground organizations. With the coming of age of internationally connected civil society in southern Thailand since around 2010, the proliferation of public forums involving students, lawyers and activists has become a potent force multiplier.
Now common debates over the devolution of power, models of autonomy, self-determination and even merdeka all play into BRN's broader objectives. The security and intelligence services in the region are fully aware of and monitoring a tactic and discourse which social media has served to amplify. But they walk a difficult line between inactivity and the unwarranted repression of legal organizations.
It is unlikely that the new military junta in Bangkok will choose to adopt a business-as-usual attitude towards a southern crisis that appears to be sinking broader roots and gradually increasing its capabilities. For the coming weeks, army commander and junta head General Prayuth Chan-ocha will be focused on pressing national and international priorities, not least the economy and establishment of a working government.
His southern point man, Fourth Army region commander Lieutenant General Walit Rojanapakdee, however, will be focused full time on the insurgency. A reputed "hawk" fresh into the job since April 1 and doubtless keen to make his mark, Walit can be expected to adopt a pro-active strategy - not least following the challenge thrown down by the latest insurgent offensive and the annual threat of increased violence during the fasting month of Ramadan.
That will likely involve efforts to tighten the counter-insurgency grid, ratchet up targeted raids on insurgent sanctuaries and bring the threat of proliferating IEDs under a semblance of control. It remains to be seen how far the Malaysian military can be encouraged to assist by increasing border security and cracking down on cross-border sanctuaries and/or possible training facilities. Stepped up contacts since the coup and talks held in Bangkok on June 4 between Prayuth and Malaysian Supreme Commander General Zulkifeli bin Mohamad Zin will certainly have included discussion of border security problems and the insurgency more generally.
Walit could also opt to completely remove the gloves. Potential tougher tactics might entail a return to the major cordon-search-and-detain sweeps through villages and sub-districts perceived as pro-insurgent which in the 2007-2008 period did much to throw the underground rebel network into disarray. Stepped up efforts to neutralize the local-level insurgent political and military leadership, which to date have been selective rather than systematic, represents another clampdown option.
What is clear, however, is that there will be no early rush back to the negotiating table under Prayuth's coup-installed rule. With Tawil Pliensri now re-instated as NSC secretary general, assisted by his own well-experienced southern point-man Somkiat Boonchu, the civilian emphasis is likely to involve extending low-key, under-the-radar contacts with a range of Pattani exiles, including elements from the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) who may prove willing to offset BRN's current dominance over the separatist camp.
For its part, BRN is more likely to watch broad political developments over the coming months while maintaining the tempo of military operations at an unremarkable level than it is to escalate the conflict. If past experience is any yardstick, this would entail a relatively stable pattern of 20 or 30 IED attacks each month - one or two spectacular enough to make the national newspapers - along with a sprinkling of attacks on military vehicles and posts and the relentless culling of local Muslim government "collaborators". In human terms, this translates into around 50 fatalities a month, about one-quarter of them security force personnel.
However, more aggressive counter-insurgency measures - a distinct possibility under present circumstances - could easily trigger an escalation. BRN has become adept in calibrating its military responses. These could involve stepped up operations within the three border provinces with urban car-bomb attacks or atrocities targeted at Buddhist civilians, with women and monks now frequently in the line of fire. High-profile strikes in Hat Yai city in adjacent Songkhla province, a major economic target, has become a practiced method of turning up the heat.
That the insurgents were able to detonate a car-bomb in the compound of Hat Yai's central police station in May speaks volumes for the vulnerability of the city, even after the major Lee Gardens Plaza bomb attack in March 2012.
An extreme scenario would involve insurgents escalating the war to out-of-area operations in national-level economic targets such as the island resort of Phuket or national capital Bangkok. Any such move effectively represents BRN's "nuclear option" and would invite a commensurate security force response in the border provinces that would move the conflict into altogether uncharted territory.
The discovery and disarming of an unusually powerful insurgent car-bomb outside Phuket's main police station in December last year has already raised the threat from the level of purely speculative to potentially immediate. Whether the two large devices in the vehicle failed to detonate owing to a technical oversight or were intended specifically as a blunt warning remains open to conjecture.
If there is any consolation for the hard-pressed security forces it may be in the nature of their enemy. Tactically, BRN's military wing has time and again proved itself to be innovative, adaptive and lethally unpredictable. By contrast, the movement's political leadership has appeared strategically cautious, conservative and ideologically anchored.
The perennially opaque dynamic between the two wings of the insurgency has to date effectively confined the conflict to the border area. How long assumptions forged in the context of the conflict's past decade will remain valid in the next is far from clear, but the coming months under a new military order in Bangkok could prove more volatile and dangerous than usual in the country's restive south.
Anthony Davis is a Bangkok-based security analyst for IHS-Jane's.
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