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03 January 2006

Climate of fear intensifies in South

Narathiwat – In the space of just two years, a bloody insurgency gripping Thailand’s Muslim South has escalated, with militants combining shock tactics and more sophisticated methods of attack to take their violent campaign to a higher plane.

 a far cry from the arson attacks and shootouts of a year ago, today’s insurgents are carrying out assassinations, car bombings and beheadings in a bid to destabilize the Muslim-majority region – and local people in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat have never been more frightened.

For some, even a short motorcycle ride to the village tea shop at sundown is too big a risk to take.

“I’m scared of being attacked, more now than ever before,” said an assistant village chief in Narathiwat’s Rangae district, one of the South’s “red zones,” where drive-by shootings and bombings occurred almost on a daily basis last year.

“There were never this many murders. Now, I won’t go out at night. I’m always looking over my shoulder.”

In nearby Tanyong Limoh village, where two Thai marines were stabbed and beaten to death last year by Muslim vigilantes, the sentiment is the same.

“The attacks used to be less regular, but people in our village are being killed now, and everyone is scared they will be next,” said Duloh, who runs a coffee stall in the remote village,

where soldiers are among his customers, making him a target for militant attacks.

For many of the 12,000 troops sent to the region to quell the unrest, there is a similar sense of foreboding when they conduct their daily patrols of the towns and villages.

Dozens of soldiers were killed in ambushes last year, mostly by insurgents who hid in the dense forests waiting to attack troops riding in pairs on motorcycles or packed into pickup trucks.

Sergeant Somjit Lorsaeng became the first such victim of 2006 when he was shot and decapitated while on patrol in Yala yesterday – one of at least 20 people to be beheaded since May 2004 in attacks bearing all the hallmarks of Iraq’s deadly insurgency.

“They wait in the bushes to attack us, hoping we will shoot back,” Col Apichai Swarngpob told ThaiDay yesterday while on his daily visit to Tanyong Limoh to meet with villagers, part of renewed efforts by the army to win back the trust of wary locals. “If we return fire, the people will no longer trust us.”

Analysts say insurgents fighting for an independent state for the region’s 1.8 million Muslims have grown more coordinated, sophisticated and barbaric in their battle with the Thai government.

“The militants are using shock tactics like beheadings and attacks on mosques, designed to incite revulsion and fear,” said Tony Davis, a security analyst with Jane’s Information Group.

“They’ve become more sophisticated with bombings and assassinations and have a real aversion to risk. That makes them good guerrillas who only hit when they know they can get away with it.”

More than 1,000 people have died in two years of violence across the region, which was once a Malay-Muslim sultanate before it was annexed by Bangkok just over a century ago.

A low-level separatist insurgency from the 1970s and 1980s reemerged in January 2004 with bombings and attacks on police posts, but after the government flooded the region with 30,000 troops and police, militants were forced to rethink their tactics to keep the conflict alive.

“Their fight has dramatically transformed,” said Chulalongkorn University’s Panitan Wattanayagorn. “The first year was disorganized and uncoordinated. They lost lives and lost legitimacy.

“But now there are car bombs of more than 50kg; they can derail trains and target infrastructure, water supplies and electricity. They attack community leaders who cooperate with the government, showing they have good human intelligence too.”

Former southern army commander Gen Pongsak Ekbannasingh said today’s insurgents were smarter and more committed than those of the past, and the battleground had shifted from the jungles to the region’s urban areas.

“The new militants move quickly and withdraw quickly,” he said. “They have a strong belief in their motherland and they do not believe they are Thai.”

Gen Pallop Pinmanee, a hawkish veteran soldier who fought communist insurgents in the 1980s, said militants were now embedded in the local communities, making them difficult to track down.

“They stay among the villagers, create an incident, then go back to their homes,” Gen Pallop told a local newspaper recently.

But how long the region’s unknown enemy can maintain the upper hand remains in question, according to Davis, the Jane’s security analyst. He said a recent decline in the number of attacks combined with better intelligence and more proactive measures by the military could seriously weaken the insurgency.

“Every arrest gives the government another piece of the jigsaw,” he said. “If the insurgents can’t bring it together in a cohesive manner politically or militarily over the coming months, they will find themselves on the back foot and their whole campaign could crumble.”

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