Thailand's army has distributed 2,700 assault rifles to civilian volunteers in the country's Muslim-dominated south amid a renewed effort to confront a violent insurgency, a move condemned by human rights groups as only likely to deepen the conflict.
The move follows claims by Thailand's now military-led government that it will bring peace to the south within a year. But observers say the junta led by former army chief-turned-prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha — which took power in a coup in May — may well pursue a more repressive, hardline approach than its civilian predecessors, dashing hopes for ongoing, but stumbling, peace talks.
Paul Chambers, Director of Research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, told VICE News: "Thailand's military has traditionally followed a hardline policy in the deep south regarding the southern insurgency. The passing out of the rifles simply consolidates this pattern."
He said that while Prayuth had spoken of his regime's commitment to the Malaysian-mediated negotiations with the leading insurgent group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), "we have yet to see deeds match words."
Chambers expressed concern that the junta would resort to the "Sri Lanka 'solution'" — "In other words, use extreme, brutal repression, which involves a great deal of collateral civilian deaths, to resolve the deep douth problem. This is how Sri Lanka ended the Tamil insurgency: militaries in Thailand and Myanmar have been impressed with the Sri Lanka 'model'."
Since early 2004, when the decades-old conflict intensified, over 6,000 people have died in Thailand's three most southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani near the Malaysian border.
The insurgency itself, comprised of various disparate groups, appears to lack any unified goal. Historically, the movement was more ethnic separatist in nature but since 2001, commentators have pointed to an increasingly Islamist undercurrent to the conflict, including calls from some for the creation of an Islamic caliphate. However, the violence has remained largely contained to the three border provinces, suggesting that it remains a largely local issue.
Much of the violence now is apparently retaliatory in nature with neither side seemingly wiling, or able, to break the cycle. Coupled with opportunist criminal gangs involved in smuggling and drugs, the intractable conflict is becoming increasingly difficult to disentangle.
A spokesperson for the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) defended the distribution of yet more weapons into the conflict, telling AFP: "They need weapons for self defence, they can't fight with just wooden sticks." The official added that most of the weapons had gone to local Muslim villagers who are members of the government's Territorial Defence Volunteers and frequent targets of insurgent attacks.
Over the last decade, groups seen as symbolic of the Thai state, including monks, teachers and security forces have been regularly targeted by the insurgents in bombings, drive-by-shootings and summary executions. The majority of victims are civilians, coming from both the majority Malay Muslim population and the minority ethnic Thai Buddhist community. Many are caught in the cross-fire or in indiscriminate bombings.
Earlier this week, Suthida Tangjai, a 20-year-old student from Narathiwat, succumbed to her injuries sustained in an apparent insurgent attack and died in hospital. She had been hit in the head by a bullet whilst she and three friends were riding her motorbike back to her university dormitory after attending lectures.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement earlier this year condemning a spout of insurgent attacks again civlians, claiming: "Southern insurgents are killing Buddhist women and spreading terror by beheading and burning their bodies." According to a leaflet left at the scene of one of these attacks, the killings were a retaliation for violence carried out by the government's volunteer militias. It read: "This attack is a punishment for letting Aor Sor commit killings and oppression of our Malay people. Free Pattani!"
The army and government militia have also been accused of abuses. In one such case this year, three Malay Muslim brothers, aged 6, 9 and 11, were shot dead and both their parents injured in Narathiwat province, reportedly a revenge attack, highlighting the cyclical nature of the violence.
In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Zachary Abuza, an independent researcher on South-East Asian security, noted "a lot of tit for tat violence."
"I fear that more arms in the countryside, especially in the hands of people who are really not in the chain of command, is going to exacerbate this problem," he said, adding: "They don't need more guns in the south, they need more accountability."
Chambers told VICE News that he foresaw an acceleration of violence on the part of the Thai army.
"If Prayuth turns up the violence, then BRN and Malaysia may drop out of the dialogue between Thailand and the BRN, as facilitated by Malaysia," he said, adding that if that happened, "any hopes of a resumption of talks in the near future will be dashed."
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