BANGKOK (Reuters) - A powerful blast that killed nine civilians and a brazen raid on a military base in Thailand’s troubled southern provinces show that a conflict that has killed 4,300 people in seven years is far from over.
Just as the government and the armed forces lauded the success of public relations campaigns and measures to undermine the rebel movement in the Muslim majority region, the shadowy militants struck back with the biggest and deadliest attacks in almost two years.
The renewed violence, while a setback for the government, is unlikely to damage its stability or the ruling Democrats’ popularity in the south ahead of possible elections this year.
The government and military are focussed on tackling security issues in Bangkok. Developments in its three restive provinces bordering Malaysia, 1,100 km (680 miles) south of the capital, have had little impact on nationwide public opinion.
Experts who follow the conflict in the south say the nature of two recent attacks suggest the insurgents are eager to discredit government claims of success and to force authorities towards a political solution.
A January 19 raid on an army outpost in Narathiwat province, a stronghold of the ethnic Malay rebels was well-planned and tactically sophisticated.
Four soldiers were killed, among them the unit commander, their living quarters set ablaze and about 50 weapons looted in an assault described by IHS-Jane’s security analyst Anthony Davis as what could be the “opening shots of a new and more militarily aggressive phase of conflict.”
“The attack on the base clearly demonstrated they wish to make a point,” Davis said.
“It wasn’t just a weapons raid, it sent a political message that the government shouldn’t underestimate them and they’re not going to put down their guns and walk away.”
Davis, a prominent researcher of the conflict, said the raid may have also been a response to the military failing to take seriously a unilateral month-long cease-fire declared by the insurgents last July in three districts in Narathiwat province.
The cease-fire aimed to dispel assertions that the rebel leaders did not have full control of fighters on the ground.
“It was clear the military tried to downplay this as much as possible. Those who organised this took great risks and they were slighted and made to feel they weren’t important,” he said.
The decades-old separatist rebellion resurfaced in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces in 2004, with a new generation of militants thought to be leading the insurrection.
The region was a Malay Muslim sultanate before it was annexed by Buddhist Thailand in 1909 and separatist tension has simmered since and led to low-level conflict fought mainly in the jungles during the 1970s and 1980s. That changed in 2004 into a violent and well-organised ethno-nationalist struggle.
A security force of more than 60,000 has been deployed in the region since then, about 40,000 of them troops.
Srisomphob Jitphiromsri, a political scientist at Pattani’s Prince of Songkhla University, said the recent attacks showed the government may not have made as much progress as it might have thought, particularly in its public-relations drive.
The military has used development projects and a hearts-and-minds campaign to try to win support.
“The large troop presence may have led to a reduction in violence but there is still a negative attitude towards the security forces,” Srisomphob said.
“The militants still are very strong and have a solid grassroots structure. The claims of progress by the government was probably seen by the insurgents as a challenge to them.”
Editing by Jason Szep