A bid to buy Thai Muslim hearts and minds

Posted in Terrorism , Asia | 05-Aug-09 | Author: Brian McCartan| Source: Asia Times

YALA and NARATHIWAT - Thailand's government has initiated a program to build on what it considers to be success with its "surge" tactics in the country's insurgency plagued southernmost regions. The four-year pacification and spending program aims to win hearts and minds even while militants appear bent on upping the tempo of their violence.

Those claims of success were put to the test at the end of April when a series of coordinated attacks were carried out across the restive region. Deadlier attacks occurred in June and July, resulting in the killing and wounding of security forces, teachers and both Muslim and Buddhist civilians. Figures from Deep South Watch, a monitoring group at Prince of Songkla University in southern Pattani province, indicate a rise in the number of casualties since the beginning of the year and point to intensifying violence.

The military contends that the upsurge in attacks was brought on by the success of the "surge" and the result of insurgent attempts to maintain influence in what Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) spokesman Colonel Parinya Chaidilok describes as a "competition for the people's support". "The insurgents think that if they cannot make things happen, then they will lose the support of the people," Parinya told Asia Times Online.

The government claims it will be able to win that competition in three years through a recently announced 63.1 billion baht (US$1.85 billion) security and development program for the region. The fund, which will draw money from the budgets of relevant ministries, was approved by a special Council of Ministers for the Development of the Five Southern Border Provinces Special Region, known locally by the Thai letters ror chor tor, established in February and headed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The program is scheduled to disburse 8.5 billion baht this year, 18.2 billion next year, 19 billion in 2011 and 17.4 billion in 2012. According to Parinya, funds earmarked for 2009-2010 will largely go to ISOC to bolster security, but in 2011 more money will go towards development projects. Depending on the success of those outlays, he says, most of the 2012 budget should go to development.

Programs in the south have come under criticism because of ISOC's control over the budget for the civilian-led development coordinating body, the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC). According to SBPAC figures, the agency will be budgeted 1.5 billion baht, 1.85 billion baht and 1.6 billion baht over the next three years - a small proportion of the overall budget announced by the government.

Critics say that ISOC's control over the cash flows has put the military in the driver's seat for political and development affairs on top of security issues. Some observers of the armed conflict have postulated that the large amounts of cash being sent to the south gives the army too big a stake and provides monetary incentive to sustain rather than end the conflict. It's a sentiment that many Malay Muslims and some Buddhists in the region echoed during discussions with Asia Times Online. Most felt that they would see little, if any, of the government's development funds.

Political military
Under an initiative Abhisit has dubbed "politics-led military", civilian control of the region's development is to be reinstated through a new administrative body known as the Southern Border Areas Administrative Center (SBAAC). As planned, the new center would receive its funding separately from ISOC and be nominally headed by the prime minister.

While the SBAAC is scheduled to take over SBPAC's role over development and politics, ISOC would remain responsible for security. Although the idea has gained cabinet approval, laws to establish the agency have yet to be passed by parliament, leaving ISOC in control of the purse strings.

The military claims that the volatile security situation in the region necessitates that soldiers are also involved in political and development work. "This is our policy that we call 'politics leading the military'," says Parinya. "But in reality the soldiers are the ones doing the political work, meaning they are building understanding with the people in order to prepare them for the development that will follow."

A mid-level officer not authorized to speak to the press described his view of the army's role in the region: "Politics here isn't about local politicians. It's not going out and looking for votes; it's not about politicians campaigning. Politics means developing the area and building understanding with the villagers, have them understand the role of the army and who is working to help the people ... Of the 60,000 forces we have down here, 80% are used to look after and protect the people and 20% are used to go after the insurgents."

Sensitive to allegations that it is taking most of the money earmarked for development and reconciliation programs, the military says its role in the south is often misunderstood. They claim that most of their budget goes towards the support of villages and the soldiers that protect them rather than to security operations.

"The money is still going to the people, it's just that it comes through the military; the military is distributing it," Parinya said. "This is what we are doing in those villages where SBPAC can't go to yet. They can't go there because there is still [insurgent] movement there ... But we are not doing it permanently; we are doing it to help them get by and keep the insurgents out. After we have chased out the insurgents, SBPAC can come in and take over the development programs."

To jump-start development and understanding in insurgent-controlled or "red" villages, the army has begun a program it refers to as Serm Sang Santisuk (Sahm Sor), or the three S's program. Under the program, serm - "to enhance" - aims to improve security, education and economic opportunities, sang - "to build" - will upgrade the region's infrastructure, both towards the aim of creating the third S, santisuk, or peace.

To carry out the program, 31-man army Peace Development Teams have been stationed in each of the 217 villages identified as being under insurgent control. Rather than seeking out and confronting insurgents, the soldiers are assigned to build understanding and foster development projects such as fish ponds and raising poultry. They also provide security to the villages and better coordination between the villages and ISOC. The teams will remain in the villages for two years, after which the situation will be re-evaluated to determine if it is safe enough for SBPAC to commence its own development programs.

According to SBPAC sources, the development budgets are divided between politics, culture, education, economic and social programs. A foreign affairs element is also included to coordinate projects with neighboring Malaysia for border villages. Money is also allocated for Village Defense Volunteers to cover training and non-military equipment such as flashlights and rice cookers. Weapons, on the other hand, are provided by the army.

The military claims that ideas for development projects come from the villagers themselves. According to one army officer in Yala province, "We can't force it on them and say, 'You need to have this and that.' We need to know what they want." Villagers are also expected to give input into their own security by setting conditions for soldiers in the villages and by joining the army-trained Village Defense Volunteers.

Strategic shift
The new policy is the brainchild of 4th Army Region commander Lieutenant General Pichet Wisaichorn, who is also ISOC's chief for the three southern border provinces. Security analysts say his approach is markedly different from previous strategies for the south, which were largely based on patrolling areas and holding discussions with villagers about their health, economic, communications and education needs.

Analysts say that while the Sahm Sor program makes sense from a theoretical perspective on counterinsurgency strategies, it remains to be seen whether ISOC can gain the trust of local villagers. The level of mistrust runs high, as many Muslims resent what they see as over a century of occupation and an often insensitive insistence by state authorities that Malay Muslims abandon their culture to become "Thai".

That resentment has been compounded by recent state violence, including the security forces' massacre of over 100 militants, including those killed in the armed siege of Krue Se mosque in Pattani in April 2004, and the deaths in October that year of 78 Muslim arrested protestors in Narathiwat who suffocated while being transported to an army base.

According to a mid-level police officer with several years of experience in the south, "If the state officials are effective, there won't be new [insurgent] recruits. If they have their rights protected and there is justice, there won't be recruits. But if they are abused or taken advantage of, there will never be an end to this."

Duncan McCargo, a Thai studies expert at the University of Leeds and author of two books on the southern insurgency, wrote in a recent journal article for the Royal United Services Institute that "resentment against the security forces was undiminished, and in some areas was actually increasing". The antipathy towards security forces has been fueled by many locals' personal experiences in dealing with security forces or by knowing someone who had been arrested, interrogated or mistreated while in state custody.

Investigation, arrest and interrogation techniques used by security forces have come in for heavy criticism by local and international human rights groups. In January, Amnesty International released a highly detailed report on alleged abuses, including torture, of suspected militants in government custody. The report said that torture had become standard operating procedure for certain army, Ranger and police units.

Many local Malay Muslims who spoke with Asia Times Online in Narathiwat and Yala indicated that they would prefer that the army was completely withdrawn from their areas. They argued that increased troop levels based directly in their villages would likely have the opposite effect of winning hearts and minds and give the impression that the people are under military occupation.

Beginning in mid-2007, the army stepped up its troop levels in the south, bringing in units on a rotating basis from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Army regions based respectively in central, northeastern and northern Thailand. At the same time, there was in increase in the number of army-led paramilitary units in the south.

Those troops are supplemented at the village level by some 50,000 Village Defense Volunteers and other local militias recruited and trained by the military. Together with 18,000 police, the number of security forces currently stationed in the south according to military sources has risen to around 98,000 personnel. The figure does not include the Ministry of Interior's "Or Sor" paramilitary, which would add several thousand more to the total ground forces. Funding for an additional 1,440 defense volunteers was granted last month.

The effect of this buildup, coupled with sweep operations and the mass arrests of suspects, has been to disrupt insurgent networks and drive them out of the villages and into the surrounding hills and forests, where it is more difficult to recruit new members and build bombs, according to army officers in both the south and Bangkok. Military officers and monitoring groups such as Deep South Watch pointed to a decrease in incidents since sweep operations began in June 2007 and a concomitant falling off in casualties.

Milieu of mistrust
More contentiously, perhaps, are military claims of an increase in trust and confidence among locals due to the greater military presence. That proximity has improved intelligence gathering, as locals now feel safer to pass on information about insurgent activities, military officials say. An army source says that the information is not usually about specific individuals, but rather warns when "something bad" may happen at a certain time and place.

That claimed success has had an ironic downside: stepped up insurgent attacks. "After [4th Army Commander] Pichet's new policy to help the people was put into practice, support for the insurgents has waned," said Parinya. "The insurgents have reacted by waging more attacks in the past two months to prove they are still influential. The insurgents know that if they allow Pichet to keep working, the insurgents will lose out."

Parinya claims that insurgent abilities to carry out coordinated attacks across several provinces, as has happened in the past, including assaults on key infrastructure, have been diminished by the new development-minded strategy. Instead, he claims, insurgents have switched to attacks in one district or across several districts of a province over a shorter time period in order to make the situation appear more violent than it really is. Security officers claim this is as a tell-tale sign that insurgents are unable to expand their areas of influence.

Yet insurgents have clearly mastered more deadly techniques. Recent attacks have shown a marked increased in the number of killed and wounded, especially of security forces and teachers. According to a senior police officer in the south, "Last year, there were bombings here and shootings there, but the main target wasn't to kill, it was more to agitate. This year it has changed; one bullet should kill one person and one bomb should kill and injure many. The goal is no longer quantity, but quality. Now, if there's a bomb, there are almost certainly deaths."

The aim of the counter-insurgency program is not to completely wipe out the insurgents, which both military and police officers acknowledge cannot be accomplished in the short term. Instead, they aim to reduce the violence to more "tolerable" levels, according to Parinya. Once violence has been reduced to a certain level, the military's logic goes, people will feel safer and business and tourism will return to the area.

"If you ask the people if it's safe, they will say there are still incidents, but it is reaching an acceptable point," Parinya said. "There are still incidents in Malaysia, Indonesia, Bali. JI [Jeemah Islamiyah, an al-Qaeda-linked regional terrorist network] is still active, but the situation stays stable until occasionally there is an attack. Don't forget, the problem has been here for a hundred years."

Security analysts caution against taking the Thai army's claims at face value. Pointing to the recent upsurge in violence, they say that the insurgents are far from defeated and instead have become more focused - not to mention more deadly. Significantly, the government and security forces have in the past done little to convince Malay Muslims of their legitimacy or sincerity in claiming to provide more economic benefits and justice in the region.

Past government and military efforts have often foundered on the inability of on-the-ground administrators or security officers to understand the aims and aspirations of Malay Muslims in the three southernmost border provinces. Programs that worked in other parts of the country where minority groups have willingly bought into the concept of becoming Thai have consistently failed in the deep south, where the population shares a distinctly different historical, ethnic and religious outlook.

Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached at brianpm@comcast.net. Mark Oltmanns is a freelance journalist recently based in Bangkok.