BANGKOK (AP) — Police in Thailand said Tuesday that 28 assault rifles intended for defense volunteers are missing in the country’s deep south, which has been wracked by a Muslim separatist insurgency for the past 17 years.
The Russian-made AK-102 rifles were supposed to be in the possession of a unit of Narathiwat province’s Territorial Defense Volunteers, a paramilitary force that assists in security operations.
Police Col. Supakorn Phuengros, chief of the province’s Muang district station, said an investigation was started after a local official reported the guns missing, but it was still unclear when and how they disappeared.
Narathiwat, along with Yala and Pattani, are Thailand’s southernmost provinces and are the only ones with Muslim majorities in the predominantly Buddhist nation.
Since 2004, the provinces have been the scene of a Muslim separatist insurgency that has led to the deaths of 7,215 people, according to Deep South Watch, a think tank that studies the conflict. It says 32 of the deaths occurred in the first three months of this year.
Muslim residents of the area have long charged that they are treated like second-class citizens. Heavy-handed crackdowns have fueled the discontent.
Col. Watcharakorn Onngern, a deputy spokesman for the regional office of the military’s Internal Security Operations Command, said the guns did not all go missing at the same time.
“There was one gun missing last year, so we set up a committee to investigate and found more guns have disappeared,” he said. He said some of the missing firearms might be related to the insurgency and some might not.
Peace talks have been held for several years under the auspices of the Malaysian government between Thai officials and Mara Patani, an umbrella body representing several southern insurgent groups. In January 2020, Thai officials held their first formal meeting in recent years with representatives of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani, the major rebel group operating in the Thai south.
There have been no recent reports of progress in the talks.
The various insurgent groups have not issued a consensus demand and are a shadowy mix of veteran separatists and often loosely led groups of violent young militants. Their goals range from greater autonomy to independence, with little sign that they are related to jihadist movements that are active in other Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines.
Story: Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul