Thai underground war has moved above ground

Insurgents jolt provincial capital with deadly attack

Fellows Spring 2005

By Ryan Anson

June 03, 2009

Students line up for morning exercises and salute allegiance to Islam and to their Islamic teacher.

Students line up for morning exercises and salute allegiance to Islam and to their Islamic teacher.

YALA, Thailand – War came suddenly to this bustling southern Thailand city.

Weekend street markets still spring quickly to life the moment midday prayers end. Everything from giant leafy tobacco to recorded sermons from the Middle East are hawked off rickety tables propped up in dingy alleyways. Women mix iced coffee in smoky restaurants where old men dressed in austere, Arab- styled gowns congregate to talk about the latest news coming out of local provinces, Iraq, and the rest of the Islamic world. A few kilometers down the road, thousands of worshipers pour out of Yala Islamic College after listening to a fiery lecture by Ismael Lutphi, a Saudi-trained cleric known for preaching conservative Wahhabist doctrine.

As motorbike traffic bottles up around a railway crossing, Wamchai Chanchung, a member of the Royal Thai Police's Special Action Force, shifts his gaze toward a row of dilapidated houses on one side of the tracks where he and six other officers patrol each day. Fragments of glass cling to soggy frames that protrude haphazardly from the outside walls of darkened rooms. Chanchung keeps an eye on the windows and an index finger on his rifle's trigger.

Marine guard patrols Yala.

A Marine guard patrols Yala, where insurgents shot up hotels, restaurants and shops after bombing a power station.

"Over there," says Chanchung, pointing to the shadow-filled shacks. "That's where they could ambush us from." While nothing happens, the young security officer stands his guard -- watching, waiting -- as passengers board a train bound for Malaysia.

Aside from a handful of shoot-and-scoot assassinations in distant parts of town, Yala had been spared from most large-scale attacks since Islamic insurgents renewed their campaign of violence in Thailand's three border provinces early last year. A daring raid by gunmen on a Thai army weapons depot and the torching of two dozen government schools 20 months ago triggered the latest round of conflict in the south, an area wrought with poverty and separatist activity. More than 820 people have died in the small provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, which are home to 90 percent of Thailand's 5 million Muslims.

Unlike two decades ago when the Pattani United Liberation Organization led the call for an independent Islamic country, no group has claimed responsibility for the now-daily assassinations of government employees, security forces, Buddhist monks and Muslims believed to be collaborating with the state in the region.

Yet, for the most part, the city of Yala has enjoyed a relative calmness.

That all changed one day last month just as the city was about to go to bed.

At about 7 p.m. on July 14, roughly 60 insurgents targeted hotels, restaurants, shops and a cinema with bombs, guns, and Molotov cocktails after plunging the city into darkness by bombing a power station. A policeman and a civilian were killed while more than 20 others seriously injured. The militants then peppered the roads with spikes to thwart a government pursuit, and escaped without casualties.

The next day, Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra bypassed Parliament and issued an executive decree that gave him the power to unilaterally declare a state of emergency for three months in all southern conflict areas. Although martial law has already been firmly entrenched since January of last year, the new declaration places all security issues in the hands of Thaksin and his Bangkok colleagues rather than the Southern Border Province Peacebuilding Command, a special unit composed of both army and police who previously coordinated all counter-insurgency efforts.

"These people want only violence. It means they do not want to talk," Thaksin told the press after an emergency cabinet meeting.

The National Human Rights Commission and newly-formed National Reconciliation Commission, a body whose task it was to find peaceful solutions to the unrest, immediately expressed dismay at what the two organizations see as aggressive moves to curtail civil liberties. People living in areas under the state of emergency can be arrested and detained without charge for 30 days, have their movements restricted and their phones tapped. Newspaper sales and radio or television broadcasts may also be banned if stories or pictures are deemed capable of provoking further violence.

Prime Minister Thaksin, a former police chief whose war against drugs resulted in the summary execution of 2000 suspects in two years, adamantly defended his decision to give himself sweeping powers to fight an ostensibly young and very elusive enemy.

"These individuals have no understanding about the concept of a nation," Thaksin said during a press corps interview about the suspects who are thought to have attended Rajabhat University in Yala. "They are juvenile delinquents who got carried away by youthful high spirits to perform foolhardy deeds, in spite of their good education."

The first major assault on Yala's downtown commercial area came a little more than a year after another highly-coordinated insurgent attack left 112 people dead, including 32 young militants who sought refuge at the historic Krue Se mosque, near the city of Pattani. They were mowed down by government troops with heavy machine guns and grenades. It also signified a recent pattern in the insurgents' choice of targets. Whereas many of the daily killings usually occur in smaller towns and on rubber plantations, recent incidents, including a February car bombing in the seedy town of Sungai Kolok and the simultaneous Hat Yai airport and hotel bombings on April 3 , involved bolder, more urban guerrilla operations.