Thailand’s Counter-Insurgents Are Not Winning Hearts and Minds
The Royal Thai Army and the Royal Thai Police have for decades fought rebels in one of Asia’s lesser-known sectarian conflicts. Malay Muslim separatists in southern Thailand, inspired by centuries-old sultanates in the Islamic historical region of Patani, renewed their insurgency against the Thai government in 2004.
Since then, the RTA, the RTP and their paramilitaries have tried to subdue the rebels — led by the Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front, a.k.a. the BRN — with controversial methods and dubious victories.
I recently visited the Malay-majority Thai provinces Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala and interviewed military officials. I wanted to find out whether the Thai government has succeeded in its war. The answer? Most certainly not.
Col. Pramote Pram-in, a spokesman for Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command, greeted me at his headquarters in the Pattani countryside. The compound resembled a ranch, with about a dozen buildings overlaid on several hills.
ISOC is one of the Thai military’s principle forces — modeled after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — waging the battle with militants in the south. Despite scandals, including a suspected plot to assassinate a popular prime minister, ISOC has expanded its influence in Thailand and within the government.
“Our purpose is to understand and develop this region — as the government has directed us,” Pram-in said. “The most important task is explaining our purpose to the population because many interlopers are trying to separate us from the locals with religion and history, and this can create misunderstandings.”
“Education is critical, so we are entering religious schools to teach Islam as it really is while we coordinate this process with clerics,” he added. “The conflict now is not a war, and this is not a war zone. We are trying to end an internal conflict with internal law.”
“We also follow international law — especially in regard to human rights.”
But many critics of Thailand’s counter-insurgency practices, including several non-governmental organizations that I visited in Bangkok and Pattani, would disagree with him. NGOs have accused the RTA and the RTP of disappearing and kidnapping civilians, including a famous Muslim lawyer known for defending human rights.
As far as many southerners care or know, death squads notorious for extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances in Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla and Yala include both insurgents and rebels but also police and soldiers.
Besides that, the concept of a Buddhist military intervening in Islamic schools could anger locals further.
Another problem is the historical record. While the Indonesian and Myanmarese armies have fought several separatist movements with varying examples of success, Thailand’s RTA has only found lasting success in a Cold War military campaign against communism — often controlled or directed by American advisers.
“The Royal Thai Army … is a uniformed bureaucracy that does not fight wars,” Duncan McCargo, an expert on Thailand at the University of Leeds, wrote in his 2008 book Tearing Apart the Land. “Unlike other powerful militaries in Southeast Asia — notably the Burmese and Indonesian armies — it never waged an independence struggle and has never repelled invaders in modern times.”
“The core pursuits of the Thai military are playing politics and engaging in business activities (including illegal activities, such as smuggling); when the occasion arises, commanders are not averse to killing are few dozen unarmed civilians,” McCargo added.
Critics argue that the military has strengthened the insurgency by abusing and torturing detainees, who may react by joining the BRN if they haven’t already.
The RTP suffers from further notoriety. It’s not unusual for Thais to fear the police, but it’s worse in the south. “The police were routinely and casually accused of abusing power, exploiting local people, and holding local culture and religion in low regard,” McCargo explained in his book.
“As part of their attempt to gain the upper hand over the Fourth Army, the police took the opportunity to assassinate or ‘disappear’ at least twenty military informers, mainly former separatists who had surrendered to the authorities in the 1980s. This provocative move undoubtedly helped reignite political violence in 2004 and helped focus resentment on the police.”
Though reputed to be the most vindictive and violent of the Thai government’s counter-insurgent forces, RTP officers defended themselves and their methods to me.
“The violence varies everywhere, but we consistently investigate while respecting the rule of law and human rights,” Col. Panya Karawa-non said. “There are many people who think and act against the state because of failures of past governments. The current government is trying to improve the situation by treating people equally and well. We respect all opinions and religions. We treat detained insurgents well, never violating human rights.”
I was skeptical. The police officers and soldiers I met seemed to repeat buzzwords to convince me and other observers that the Thai government respected human rights and international law.
Karawa-non dismissed reporting by NGOs that the RTP had committed extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, blaming an insurgent conspiracy. “When there are human rights abuses, it’s insurgents posing as policemen and soldiers,” he told me. “We never commit human rights abuses. We just want to help civilians and avoid violence.”
His superior, Maj. Gen. Krissakorn Pleethanyawong, said the RTA and RTP could police themselves … without the help of the international community. “A remaining problem is activists’ attempts to bring in the international community,” Pleethanyawong said. “Our work becomes harder when the outside world is watching the policies and actions of the administration.”
Humanitarians have challenged the RTA and RTP’s arguments, suggesting that human rights remain a problem throughout Thailand and the south in particular. The military and police often rely on paramilitaries such as the Thahan Phran and the Border Patrol Police, which the International Crisis Group has accused of committing atrocities such as raping and shooting civilians.
Col. Songtham Leejon from the Thahan Phran assured me that the paramilitary group is benevolent and committed to human rights.
“Our operations are under the law,” Leejon said. “We will not issue undue violence against insurgents, and we treat civilians like brothers and sisters. Because our recruits come from civilians, we must work for and with civilians directly. When we do engage insurgents, we use the lowest level of violence possible, only escalating when we have to.”
Though he implied that the Thahan Phran have a strong relationship with Muslims in the south, my interpreter informed me that southern Muslims and Buddhists hated the Thahan Phran the most.
“No one likes them,” she said as she shook her head. “They bring crime and corruption wherever they go in this region despite what they claim.”
The police officers and soldiers I interviewed spent more time defending, explaining or hiding their alleged abuses than presenting their tactics, operations and strategies for effective, efficient counter-insurgency operations.
In fact, I left most interviews wondering whether the RTA and the RTP had a strategy or whether the abuses resulted from lacking one, allowing counter-insurgents to fight rebels without much government oversight.
“There were few obvious ways out of the security impasse,” McCargo wrote of past Thai policy. “Some analysts called for an Iraq-style surge, a doubling of troop numbers to create a ‘security grid’ in the south, arguing that such moves could dramatically reduce levels of violence. But especially given the poor performance of the Thai security forces to date, there seemed no reason at all to believe that such measures could work.”
He concluded that “the security policies of the Thai state in the south were a lamentable catalogue of criminal blunders, negligence, incompetence, lack of coordination, and sheer misdirection.”
Little seems to have changed in the south, where several bombings surprised police several days before I arrived.
“There are still legitimate concerns about how serious the military leadership is about tackling the insurgency,” analyst Zachary Abuza wrote in his 2011 book The Ongoing Insurgency in Southern Thailand. Abuza noted that “the RTA leadership remains obsessed with elite political machinations in Bangkok, which are unlikely to stabilize anytime soon.”
Abuza, McCargo and others pointed out how the Thai military seems better at overthrowing Thai governments than fighting rebels.
“The military doesn’t understand that they are not just fighting against an armed group,” Thai-American journalist Don Pathan, an expert on the south, told me as we discussed the conflict.
“They are up against a historical narrative that is different from the state-constructed one,” Pathan continued. “They tell themselves that they are there to win hearts and minds. But their conduct on the ground, the culture of impunity among the security officials, only pushes the people away from them.”