From the International Herald Tribune:
PATTANI, Thailand: Some are already calling it war, a brutal Muslim separatist insurgency in southern Thailand that has taken as many as 2,000 lives in three years, with almost daily bombings, drive-by shootings, arson and beheadings.
It is a conflict the government admits it is losing. A harsh crackdown and martial law in recent years seem only to have fueled the insurgency, generating fear and anger and undermining moderate Muslim voices.
A new policy of conciliation pursued by Thailand’s junta since it took power in a coup five months ago has been met by increased violence, including a barrage of 28 coordinated bombings in the south that killed or injured about 60 people a week ago.
“The momentum of violence is now beyond the control of government policy,” said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a political scientist at Prince of Songkhla University here.
“Buddhist monks have been hacked to death, clubbed to death, bombed and burned to death,” said Sunai Phasuk, a political analyst with the Human Rights Watch monitoring group. “This has never happened before. This is a new aspect of violence in the south.”
Some remote areas in the south have become, in effect, no-go zones for the police or military, according to Francesca Lawe-Davies, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
Exactly the sort of thing happening in the major metropolitan centers of Western Europe.
“It appears in the last year or so that insurgent groups are actually starting to control territory in a more conventional sense,” she said.
Some Buddhist and Muslim villages have begun sealing themselves off from one another. People say that old friendships and patterns of cooperation are being undermined by mistrust.
In a report published last month, Zachary Abuza, the author of “Militant Islam in Southeast Asia,” said that entire Buddhist communities have fled in a “de facto ethnic cleansing.”
“The social fabric of the south has been irreparably damaged,” he said.
“In the local communities in the red zones, it already is a war situation,” Srisompob said. “It is different now from last year, from the last two years.”
About 1.3 million ethnic-Malay Muslims form a majority in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, accounting for a tiny percentage of Thailand’s overwhelmingly Buddhist population of 65 million.
The Muslims have complained of discrimination and attempts at forced assimilation since Thailand annexed the former Sultanate of Pattani a century ago. Armed insurgencies have risen and subsided over the past four decades, but the government may now be facing its most dangerous challenge.
“What is new about the current conflict is the level and degree of violence, the Islamist agenda of the insurgents, and their unprecedented degree of cooperation and coordination,” Abuza said.
“The level of violence in Thailand’s south has never been higher,” he said. “Nor has it been more brutal.”
He said there had been more than 24 beheadings in the past three years and as many as 60 attempted beheadings.
Human Rights Watch counted more than 6,000 violent incidents over the past three years. It said that more than 60 teachers and 10 students had been killed and 110 schools “” the most visible signs of central government authority in many places “” had been set ablaze.
The insurgency is all the more difficult to combat because it does not show its face. Unlike similar movements around the world, this one has not set out its demands or published a manifesto. It is a collection of violent groups without an identifiable central leadership.
“We are fighting a ghost,” said Chidchanok Rahimmula, a lecturer in security at Prince of Songkhla University.
The new policy of conciliation was put in place by Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a Muslim, who took power after Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted as prime minister in a coup in September.
Surayud apologized for the harsh policies his predecessor implemented during his six years in office, promised to investigate abuses and restructured the military command for the south.
People in rural areas say that soldiers and police officers have become less aggressive and are attempting to reach out by attending local fairs and holding dialogues.
Last week, Surayud conceded that none of this was working. “We can’t see the results in three to four months because the painful feelings of southern people in the past four to five years run deep,” he said. “This is not easy to cure.”
Indeed, the insurgency has responded by stepping up its violence, in an apparent effort to block any peace process. There has been no serious reply to Surayud’s offer of negotiations.
People who live here, both in the villages and urban areas, say they have never been so frightened.