Page 1 of 2 Meaningless ceasefire in South Thailand
By Anthony Davis
BANGKOK - If Thai government leaders and statisticians are to be believed, the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan marked an improvement on the usual pattern of stepped up mayhem that accompanies the month in the conflict-wracked border provinces of southern Thailand.
There was, they concluded, a drop in ''violent incidents'' that suggested a much-touted ''ceasefire'' announced in Malaysia on July 12 was not a complete failure, or even that the ground situation might be improving.
But as Mark Twain famously commented, ''lies, damned lies and statistics'' are a perennial asset in massaging public perceptions. And when the statistics relate to what are generically termed ''violent incidents'' in the southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala
and Narathiwat, good news can be deceptive. In the context of Ramadan this year, it can turn reality upside down.
According to the Prince of Songkhla University's Deep South Watch, a generally respected source of statistical data on the ebb and flow of the region's conflict, there were 86 incidents in the period between July 10 and August 7, a clear decline from the 99 recorded in the Ramadan period of 2012. The 29 fatalities dropped from the 34 figure recorded last year.
The problem with these statistics, however, is two-fold. First, can numbers that depend on definitions that are either unclear or malleable be trusted? Is an insurgent arson attack, of which there are many in the region, to be defined as a ''violent incident''? Is a killing ruled by local police to stem from a ''personal dispute'' to be counted in the context of the separatist conflict as a ''violent incident''?
Secondly, and more importantly, the statistics say nothing about the nature of incidents or their timing - both critical to any meaningful analysis. If arson is counted as violence, can an incident involving a youth torching a public phone booth reasonably be equated with 10 armed men setting fire to a rubber processing factory and causing over 100 million baht (US$3 million) of damage?
A bomb incident is unquestionably violent, but can an attack with a home-made hand-grenade that fails to explode be fairly compared with an ambush involving an 80-kilogram land-mine that destroys an army truck and kills five soldiers?
Parallel to the hopeful narrative of declining violence which emerged from the region's statistical maze, it is worth underscoring three central aspects of the conflict during Ramadan this year that feel-good statistics failed to reveal or served to obscure.
The most striking aspect was that during the final days of the month the region's dominant insurgent faction, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Patani Melayu (Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front, or BRN) launched an unusually hard-hitting offensive. Indeed, the wave of well-coordinated attacks reflected notably improved capabilities that do not bode well for near-term peace prospects.
Secondly, when it comes to the perennially contentious question of command and control - the ability of political leaders to exercise effective control over military elements - it appeared that the government in Bangkok may actually have more to worry about than insurgent bosses in neighboring Malaysia.
Finally, and scarcely reported, it was apparent that the BRN, forced by the current peace process to emerge from a decade of shadow warfare, is mobilizing its propaganda wing to communicate with its Malay-Muslim constituency on the ground as well as through its pronouncements and demands of the state posted on video-sharing site YouTube.
In retrospect, there was probably never much chance that the much-touted Ramadan ceasefire would ever work. From the outset it was clear that the ''common understanding'' on a reduction of hostilities announced in Kuala Lumpur on July 12 was overly ambitious, dangerously vague and woefully ill-prepared.
Emerging from earlier government appeals for a reduction of hostilities as a sign of the BRN's good faith, the attempted cease-fire reflected more than anything else Bangkok's need to produce tangible results as fast as possible from an inherently risky peace initiative.
The extent to which the BRN was invested in the scheme put to its representatives at the June 13 round of talks in Kuala Lumpur was pointedly reflected in the YouTube video clip later released by the group. The posting set forth seven notably stringent conditions for a deal, including a virtual return-to-barracks by all security forces during the fasting month.
It was also undoubtedly significant that the announcement of the ''understanding'' on July 12 came late, two days after the beginning of Ramadan, instead of on July 9 as originally planned. By that time one significant attack involving an improvised explosive device (IED) had already targeted a Royal Thai Army (RTA) truck in Raman district of Yala, wounding all eight soldiers on board.
The fact that the announcement was made solely by Ahmad Zamzamin bin Hashim, the Malaysian facilitator at the peace talks, with representatives from the belligerent parties conspicuously absent was also not lost on most observers of the conflict. Nor had any independent monitoring mechanisms been put in place, a further reflection of the clumsily ad hoc and unprofessional manner in which the peace process has been conducted from the outset.
Interestingly, however, there is clear evidence that the BRN, for whatever reason, saw advantage in honoring the agreement - at least initially. Between July 12 and July 17, IED attacks - which in early July had been running at a rate of around one per day - abruptly ceased. So, too, did small-arms fire attacks on security forces and targeted killings that could be reasonably attributed to insurgent rather than criminal activity.
This sudden hiatus likely stemmed in part from a strategic political calculus motivated by pressure from Malaysia and a desire not to appear unreasonable in the eyes of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which Malaysia had kept informed and which the BRN has demanded should be permitted to participate in the peace process along with other international observers. At the same time, there was also probably a ground-level calculation - shared by field commanders in most conflicts - that a cessation of hostilities offered a useful window of opportunity to regroup and resupply.
Sources who spoke to Asia Times Online noted at the time that this sudden calm was viewed by some security force commanders as decidedly ominous. Their unease was only compounded by intelligence reports over the weekend of July 13-14 that insurgents were busy exploiting the lifting or loosening of controls at many road check points in the region - part of the government's Ramadan hearts and minds campaign - to move personnel and assembled IEDs.
It appeared that these moves were being made in preparation for an offensive, either after Ramadan, or, given sufficient and credible provocation from the Thai side, in the religiously auspicious final days of the fasting month.
In the event, and perhaps predictably, it was the latter dynamic that won out. On July 15 and 16, the week-long lull was broken by a sudden string of targeted shootings in Yala. Despite being officially attributed to ''personal disputes'', these incidents bore all the hallmarks of extra-judicial killings carried out by security force elements and certainly were widely perceived as such by local Muslim communities.
The first involved the critical wounding in Yala's Banang Satar district of a Muslim, Taleb Sapae-ing, an individual with reported links to the insurgency who had earlier been arrested on security-related charges but released on bail. A second attack resulted in the killing - also in Banang Satar - of an Islamic teacher, Mahdari Ali, 43, later described by well-placed Muslim sources as an important BRN cross-border liaison operative known by the insurgent organization to be on a security force ''black list''.
A third attack targeted Abdul Rahim Torleh, 50, an individual with reported links to the insurgency, who was shot him dead in his house near an Islamic school in Sateng Nork sub-district of on the edge of Yala city in the early hours of July 16.
These killings appeared to tip the region back into a slowly rising cycle of renewed violence. Two IED attacks on military patrols followed on July 17, one of them - probably not by coincidence - in Banang Satar district. On July 19, security forces raided a house in Cho Airong district of Narathiwat, killing in a shoot-out a local insurgent commander allegedly implicated in an insurgent bombing one of the bombings two days earlier.
Any doubts over the unraveling of the ceasefire were laid to rest later the same day when a platoon-sized RTA and Ranger task force attacked an insurgent camp on a spine of mountains between Ra-ngae and Cho Airong districts in Narathiwat. The raiding soldiers trekked into deep jungle for some 10 hours in a pointedly unambiguous violation of the July 12 commitment to ''refrain from any aggressive actions''.
Complaints over these alleged violations of the understanding were lodged with the Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur by BRN's chief representative at the talks, Hassan Taib; at the local level insurgent anger was reflected in renewed targeted killings of innocent Buddhists.
Not least was the brutal murder on July 21 of a married couple in Ra-ngae district forced off their motorcycle in Ra-ngae district and dispatched with shots to the head as they knelt pleading for their lives. Two bombings followed on July 23 and 24, the second accidentally killing two female Muslim teachers in Chanae district of Narathiwat.