SI SAKHON, NARATHIWAT, Thailand -- Even as fingers are pointed at southern separatists as among possible suspects behind a string of bombing and arson attacks on Aug. 11 and 12 in southern Thailand, the Thai military is shifting strategy on countering the 12-year old insurgency. By October, the Thai army will reduce its presence in the historically contested southernmost provinces, in favor of outsourcing security responsibilities to volunteers and officials at the village level.
Village chiefs, provincial governors, district chiefs and paramilitary Defense Volunteers, who normally take their orders from the Thai interior ministry, are being assigned more onerous security duties. These include patrolling violence-prone areas alongside regular army soldiers and paramilitary Rangers. The concept -- known as the Tung Yang Daeng model, after a district in Pattani province where it was introduced -- is to put the volunteers rather than regular soldiers in the line of fire of insurgents. In the past, the rebels have shown that they prefer to leave local people alone.
Thai army and police officials said that these village volunteers are often relatives of the insurgents in this restive region, where 90% of the 2 million population see themselves as ethnic Malay Muslims.
Up to now, village chiefs, their deputies and the Defense Volunteers have been largely unchallenged by the insurgents as long as they do not engage in intelligence-gathering activities for the government forces.
The Fourth Army Area command, which is responsible for security in the region, has also taken a more hands-off stance toward village officials, allowing them to carry out routine administrative tasks such as registering births and deaths. The officials are lightly armed and are not expected to do much more than defend themselves if required.
But all that could change with the shift of local volunteer forces to the frontline. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha recently set a deadline for troops from Thailand's central, north, and northeast commands to withdraw from the region by October after being posted there since 2007. The withdrawal of non-local troops has been considered for some years, but a decision was finally reached in November 2014, six months after the coup that brought Prayuth to power.
At the time, Lt. General Prakarn Chonlayut, then commander of the Fourth Army Area, announced that local militia would replace the outgoing conscript troops. Citing the drop in insurgency incidents, Prakarn said the situation was improving and that it was time to scale back the central government's military presence. He explained that "locals are the ones who know the area best."
Some experts doubt that the region -- and the local volunteers -- are ready to shoulder the brunt of the counterinsurgency campaign. "The government's assertion that they can do this now because violence is down is a misnomer. If you look at the monthly rate of violence, the insurgents can ratchet it up at will," said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington D.C., who has been monitoring the situation.
"There is a lot of concern about human rights violations by the Rangers. They are less disciplined and poorly trained; they think more about short-term tactical gains, than the long-term consequences of their actions," he added.
Bombings raise suspicion
Complicating the picture, the spate of 11 bombings and arson attacks in several Thai tourist resorts and southern towns on Aug. 11 and 12 has raised questions about whether the southern Thai insurgents are behind the attacks, for which no one has officially claimed responsibility.
The military-backed government has blamed the bombings on supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist former prime minister who was ousted by the army in 2006. The pro-Thaksin forces opposed the new constitution proposed by the government, which was approved in an Aug. 7 national referendum.
Thai security officials told the Nikkei Asian Review it was too early to rule out the Malay separatists. They explained that the pro-Thaksin camp has virtually no presence in southern Thailand, where most of the recent bombings occurred, and the bombs used in the attacks "looked too much like the ones used by the insurgents in the far south." On Aug. 13, a Buddhist man from Chiang Mai was arrested and questioned about a possible connection to the bombings, adding to suspicions of a possible connection to the pro-Thaksin "red shirt" movement. A Buddhist suspect would conveniently support the government's narrative, while if a Malay Muslim was implicated, it would highlight the military's failure in the southern provinces.
An officer from the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the dominant separatist group in the south, told the NAR that the drop in insurgency activity was mostly due to a change in the movement's strategy. The BRN controls more than 90% of the rebel combatants, according to Thai military intelligence officers. The BRN officer denied that the expansion of the army's security network, using ranger units, was the prime reason for the change. The officer added that he had no knowledge whether his movement was involved in the Aug. 11 and 12 terrorist attacks.
The conflict in recent months has fallen into a pattern of strikes and retaliatory attacks between the insurgents and security forces. "There are costs to employing violence -- getting caught, limited manpower, limited resources, loss of local support. But [the BRN insurgents] have proven they can still strike at will. For example, the military stepped up security across the south in the week ahead of the [constitutional] referendum. Violence surged nonetheless," Abuza said.
For example, a powerful homemade bomb attached to a parked motorcycle ripped through a lightly armored pickup truck carrying five Defense Volunteers and two senior provincial officials on Aug. 3. All seven survived, although a bystander was injured by shrapnel.
The group had just left a Volunteer camp where the members had met local villagers in efforts to convince them to vote in favor of the new constitution. An overwhelming majority in the region voted against the proposed charter on Aug. 7.
Among other small bomb attacks in the lead up to the referendum, on the night before the vote, telephone poles in nearby districts were bombed, causing temporary power outages across Narathiwat province.
BRN officials told the NAR that these attacks were a way of rejecting Thai sovereignty over the southern provinces. "Besides undermining Thailand's security apparatus, it was also an opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities," said one BRN operative. But the local population has indicated growing opposition to the violence and has pressed the armed groups to change their tactics.
In particular, many Muslims have spoken out against attacks on soft targets, including religious sites, schools, teachers and Buddhist monks.
Violence peaked in 2007 when there were 1,850 insurgency-related violent incidents, according to the researchers at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani. That year also saw 164 schools targeted in arson attacks.
Since then, as an apparent result of public pressure, the number of incidents fell to 821 in 2008, with only 10 schools subjected to fire-bombings. The BRN officer admitted in an interview with the NAR that public pressure was one reason for the reduction in attacks, particularly against "soft" targets such as schools and markets. Even so, a string of bombings in May 2015 saw nearly 40 small bombs detonated in Yala, although no one was killed. The aim, according to another BRN member, was to demonstrate the group's capabilities and discredit the military.
Earlier in the long-running insurgency, the rebels resorted to beheading and castrating dead soldiers to "demoralize the local commanders and their units, especially those who had just been assigned to the region," said a BRN officer. But Muslim clerics have since ruled that this practice is out of line with Sharia law.
"Islam gives Muslims the right to fight their enemies but the juwae (fighter) has no right to mutilate their bodies after killing them," said one village imam, or religious leader.
Acknowledging the ability of local people to influence the insurgents, the government has attempted to find ways to use them to counter the separatists. In the first decade of the conflict, many local residents were employed as government clerks and assistants for the 60,000-strong security force in the region.
The big question behind the army's new thinking is whether the switch to outsource security responsibilities to villagers will work.
The army has encouraged local Muslims to join the Rangers, hoping they will serve as links between the security forces and the local community. The idea makes strategic sense for the Thai state but looks much less effective on the ground. Similar government thinking lies behind the creation of the Defense Volunteers Corps, which initially seemed to be a successful tactic, reducing the level of conflict.
But there are costs for social cohesion in local communities in this strategy. A Muslim Ranger manning an M60 machinegun in Si Sakhon district told the NAR that his decision to join the Rangers has turned him into a marked man who must take security precautions whenever he leaves the military camp. People from his village said he had "crossed the line" by joining the Rangers.
Indeed, the insurgents have shown their willingness to attack the local volunteer units if necessary, with 12 village headmen and 10 Defense Volunteers, most of them Muslims, killed in 2015, according to Abuza. So far this year, another seven headmen and seven Defense Volunteers have been killed. "So the cost of collaborating with the Thai government is not academic," he added.
Last July, the BRN attacked a Defense Volunteer camp for the first time. The assault, on a camp in Yala Province, was carried out by about 30 militants using machine guns and M79 grenades. BRN representatives told the NAR that no one was killed because the aim was to send a "stern warning" to local people who might take up arms against the insurgents. That warning was ignored by the Volunteers, a key factor no doubt in the Aug. 3 attack on their pickup truck.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based associate with Asia Conflict and Security Consulting.