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Feb 13, 2013 | 17:58 GMT

In Thailand, Southern Tensions Escalate

MADAREE TOHLALA/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

The Feb. 11 assault on a marine base in southern Thailand is the most ambitious attack since violence began to escalate in early 2004. Roughly 80 heavily armed gunmen stormed the base, located in Narathiwat province's Bacho district, but failed to kill any marines. The attack left 16 militants dead and a few marines wounded.

Violence in southern Thailand has claimed roughly 5,000 lives over the past nine years. During that time, attacks consisted primarily of shootings of soft targets, such as Buddhist monks, teachers, police officers and public servants. Sometimes militants employed improvised explosive devices and car bombs. While tactically unsuccessful, the Feb. 11 attack highlights a trend in recent months toward operations involving larger formations of militants. Organizing and arming 80 assailants requires heavy manpower and a higher level of coordination than that of previous attacks. The manpower, coordination and target indicate that the militants are now able to pursue harder targets and may have specifically targeted military assets to obtain more weapons.

The perpetrators of the attack have yet to be identified. Short of claims of responsibility, identifying the responsible group may prove difficult. The disorganization of southern Thailand's insurgency, coupled with unclear political and economic goals, has complicated efforts to identify insurgent groups and indeed has exacerbated conflict in the region, where drug trafficking and criminal organizations proliferate.

The deteriorating security situation in the country's southern provinces is problematic for the Pheu Thai government, which has not yet gained the trust of the region's Muslims, despite some gestures of good will from Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. In fact, Pheu Thai has been compared to the parties under Yingluck's predecessor and brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who cracked down on Muslim insurgencies heavy-handedly in the early 2000s. Moreover, many believe Thaksin's efforts to undermine the military and the political establishment contributed to the unbalancing of southern power structures. The southern Muslims' resultant distrust of Bangkok is one reason for the ongoing insurgency and instability in the region. This has put public pressure on the Pheu Thai party, which in March will face a critical gubernatorial election that could determine how much power the political establishment will have in Bangkok.

In this context, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, who was appointed to oversee the security of southern provinces, proposed a curfew in a few high-risk areas in the south on Feb. 6. The idea was swiftly rejected by Defense Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat, who said such measures were unnecessary, but nonetheless was supported by army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. During Thaksin's tenure, the government had been reluctant to impose such security measures, which would strengthen the army's power in the south and would encounter greater resistance from southern Muslims. Chalerm is known for his aggressive stance, but in the face of escalating tensions in the south, the government may find its options limited, and could be forced to rely on the army to enforce harsher measures.

Despite the fact that the insurgency is largely leaderless and disorganized, it has nonetheless demonstrated the ability to venture outside the south. But as the conflict drags on, Thailand's status as a logistic hub for regional and international militant groups could strengthen the insurgency's capability and destabilize the region. Already Bangkok has found itself in a difficult position in dealing with the influx of Muslim Rohingya, who are attempting to flee from southwestern Myanmar and who Thai officials fear could contribute to instability in southern Thailand. With multiple political agendas among the political elite, the Yingluck government may find little space to find an effective solution or push forward in negotiations.

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