Putting a face to the conflict in Thailand's south

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

  • Published
Media caption,
Jonathan Head meets the bereaved families of Thai insurgents

Nine years ago, a forgotten conflict in the far south of Thailand flared up in the most dramatic way.

Gunmen raided a military arms depot, killing the four guards and making off with around 400 assault rifles.

Three months later waves of insurgents, armed with some of those captured weapons, launched co-ordinated attacks on 11 police posts in an almost suicidal fashion - 107 of them were killed, including 32 who had taken shelter in the historic Krue Se mosque in Pattani.

The insurgency, as it is now known, has killed more than 5,000 people, 550 of them members of the Thai security forces.

Most of the attacks have been on a small scale - drive-by shootings by gunmen on motorbikes, small roadside bombs detonated by mobile phones, gruesome beheadings of traders or rubber-tappers heading to work in the early morning.

Image caption,
Darunee Alee says she refuses to be downcast after her husband's death

The violence has never spread beyond the three-and-a-half provinces next to the Malaysian border, which have predominantly Malay Muslim populations. The almost daily attacks rarely make headlines, and the insurgents, who are mainly young Muslim men, make few statements and do not acknowledge any centralised leadership.

Theirs remains a faceless movement, although they are presumed to be fighting for the goal of an independent Islamic state, inspired by the old Malay sultanate of Pattani, which used to govern this region until it was annexed by Thailand in 1909.

But last week, a failed insurgent assault on a Thai marine base lifted the mask for a moment.

The marines had been warned and met the night-time raiders with booby traps and volleys of gunfire.

Sixteen of the militants were killed, their bodies strewn among the rubber trees. Most of them were well-known by the Thai authorities. Some were local - from the village of Tanyong, just a 10-minute drive from the base.

Many of the people in this region do not speak Thai and do not readily talk to outsiders, especially journalists. There is a climate of fear, created by the years of insurgent attacks and military retaliation.

Proud of death

But the day after the marine base raid, the families of three of the insurgents who lived next door to each other in Tanyong were receiving visitors and speaking.

I met the father and widow of 25-year-old Sa-oudi Alee. Both said they were proud of the way he had died, fighting for his beliefs.

Image caption,
Marohso Jantarawadee, shown here with his wife, was the leader of the group

Darunee Alee has been left to bring up their 18-month-old son, but refused to be downcast.

Why did Sa-oudi feel he had to join the insurgents, I asked?

She said that like many of the other insurgents, he became involved after the Tak Bai incident in October 2004, when the Thai army detained dozens of Muslim men and piled them, tied up, on top of each other in trucks before driving them for three hours.

Seventy-eight of them died on the journey from being crushed or suffocated.

Sa-oudi had spent two years in jail and was released last year. His passport showed he had also travelled six times to Malaysia between 2007 and 2008, although his family were unclear what he was doing there.

Darunee's father-in-law, Matohe Alee, has eight surviving children, six of them boys. Would he allow them to follow their brother and join the insurgency?

He would try to stop them, he said, but they don't always listen.

Murmurs of approval

Marta Majid has three young daughters. She knew her husband, Hasem, was involved with the insurgents. He stayed away from home and the army often searched her house.

But his violent death clearly came as a shock and she looked bewildered. Most of his head was blown off in the attack, and she described having to identify him by the shape of his lower jaw.

Just down the road, a steady stream of neighbours was filing through the brand-new home of Marohso Jantarawadee to pay their respects to his widow, Rusanee.

He was the commander of the operation against the base and one of Thailand's most wanted men, with more than 12 arrest warrants against him and a price on his head.

Through her tears, Rusanee said she felt honoured to have been his wife, although she grieved that their young son would never know his father.

There were murmurs of approval from the visitors in the house. None questioned an insurgent campaign which has targeted teachers, Buddhist monks and anyone working for the Thai state.

Instead they recounted their own narrative, of repeated harassment by the authorities.

On the road outside, a platoon of Thai soldiers patrolled carefully, keeping a lookout for ambushes, prodding gingerly in the thick, tropical vegetation for possible bombs.

They have a good idea who the insurgent families are, but have found it hard to track down leaders in a movement which is so fragmented.

Sometimes suspected insurgents are taken in for questioning.

At times in the past they have been tortured, although the military has been presenting its most conciliatory face after last week's attack, regretting the loss of life and referring to the insurgents as "Thai citizens, like us".

The death of Marohso, though, is clearly seen as a coup.

'Historical mistrust'

But it will not change the course of the conflict, said Don Pathan, a long-time reporter and researcher on Thailand's deep south.

Image caption,
Thai soldiers sometimes take suspected insurgents for questioning

"Most of the people here share the same sentiment, the same historical mistrust of the Thai state", he said.

"They often look at these insurgents as local heroes. They may not agree with the brutality but I can assure you they share the same sentiments.

"And a lot of these the insurgents are their kids, their nephews, their neighbours' nephews - they are not going to turn them in."

He warned that although the insurgents use the language of jihad, and some of the methods of other jihadist groups, the conflict is at heart about Malay-Pattani nationalism and not Islam.

There are few signs that this or any other Thai government recognises that.

The current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra did propose some form of autonomy during her election campaign two years ago, but quickly dropped it in the face of opposition from the military.

The army, the police, local politicians and the insurgents are all believed to make significant money from the rampant smuggling of everything from drugs, to people, to diesel fuel, in this border region.

There seems little incentive to risk bold initiatives that might end the fighting.

And so it grinds on, into its tenth year.