BANGKOK — Separatist campaign in Thailand’s southernmost provinces saw fewer attacks, deaths, and injuries throughout 2020, a small respite that experts attribute to peace dialogues and – strangely enough – coronavirus.
Data compiled by independent observers suggest 2020 was among the least deadly years for the southern border provinces since secessionist violence broke out in 2004, though the trend was somewhat undercut by recent fatal shootings that killed a police officer and an official last week.
Those familiar with the unrest interviewed for this story said the decrease in deaths and injuries this year is due to several factors, most notably a pledge by a major militant group that it would “cease operations” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is a big factor for fewer incidents,” Rakchart Suwan, chairman of a group called Buddhist Network for Peace, said. “I have talked with the local people, they joked that they want the COVID situation to last for a long time, since there are barely any [attacks] during COVID.”
The BRN is considered to be the largest of the several groups vying to revive the state of Patani, an independent sultanate annexed by Bangkok in the early 20th century that once occupied what is now the provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat.
The conflict, fueled by ethnic and religious enmity, has killed at least 7,000 people, most of them civilians, according to human rights watchdogs.
In a statement, the BRN said its cessation of hostilities was made on humanitarian grounds for the sake of efforts to contain the virus outbreak. Some also suspect it was a psychological campaign to achieve a moral high ground.
“The dissidents don’t want to make the matter worse,” said Tayudin Osman, who teaches at Yala Rajabhat University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.
“They know that if they stage attacks during that period of time, when people were already suffering from [the pandemic], they could lose support,” he went on. “The COVID-19 outbreak was a big problem.”
The BRN is often blamed for gun attacks and car bombs in the region, targeting security officers and civilians alike. The organization is believed to have engineered a string of bombings that killed four victims during the Mother’s Day holidays in 2016, a shopping mall car bomb wounding 50 people in 2017, and a raid on a security checkpoint in 2019 which left 15 dead.
A car bomb that injured 25 people in front of Yala’s government office in March was also linked to the BRN, though large scale attacks seem to have stopped since its pledge was announced in April, suggesting that the group might have held up its bargains.
But a spokesman for the Internal Security Operations Command, a government agency tasked with quelling the unrest, said the absence of major attacks was more likely due to logistic challenge posed by the pandemic.
“They lack a freedom of movement that would allow them to hide in the neighboring country, because of the lockdown measures,” Col. Pramote Prom-in said. “That’s why it’s harder for them to stage attacks.”
Pramote also credited the lull in violence to aggressive operations by security forces that scoured insurgent hideouts from the southern jungles and mountains, and a lack of support from local people for the separatists.
“I think part of it is because the public has grown weary of violence,” he said.
A director of an organization that monitors violence in the region said the virus has contributed to a relatively peaceful year for southern Thailand.
But he also worried that it may also sabotage a long-term quest for peace, since border restrictions have disrupted the dialogues between the two sides, which typically took place in Malaysia.
“Although the COVID-19 pandemic led to fewer violent incidents, it forced the peace dialogues to a halt,” Srisompob Jitpiromsri, who runs Deep South Watch, said. “The dialogue parties can’t travel to Malaysia. Foreign observers can’t travel either. Everything is suspended. It’s a problem right now.”
Deep South Watch has been compiling data of attacks, clashes, and casualties associated with the separatist conflict in the southern border provinces, known colloquially as the Deep South.
Statistics collected by the organization cover the provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, as well as four districts in the neighboring province of Songkhla. Latest available data for 2020 is from October.
They show that the number of “incidents” – which could be anything from gun attacks, EODs, police raids, and clashes between insurgents and security forces – throughout 2020 has decreased from the previous year.
The months of March and April 2019 recorded 50 and 34 incidents, respectively, whereas the same months in 2020 saw 24 and 19 incidents. The same trend can be seen in May (17), June (17), and July (22), when compared with the previous year – 32 in May 2019, 43 in June 2019, and 40 in July 2019.
However, incidents in the latter months of September and October – when the data was last collected – appear to have outnumbered the same period in 2019. The surge seems to coincide with the return to normalcy across Thailand as the coronavirus threats somewhat subsided.
Perhaps more reassuring for peace advocates in the region is the number of monthly death tolls, which have dropped significantly throughout 2020.
February saw a gap as much as 10 deaths compared to the same month in 2019. The same gap was noted in April and widened to 13 in July; the rest of the year also saw a drop in fatalities.
But the conflict remains a bloody business for the Deep South. Just last week, on Dec. 7, a policeman was gunned down by assailants armed with assault rifles in Pattani. The gunmen stole the victim’s handgun before fleeing the scene.
Four days later, on Friday, a deputy kamnan was shot dead inside his home in Yala province. Security officers suspect the separatists were responsible for both attacks.
A junior administrative officer was also killed in a drive-by shooting in Pattani province in late November.
Talks of Peace
Experts who spoke for this story said the dialogues between the authorities and the insurgents, whether formal or informal, could have been another reason for the less bloodletting in the Deep South.
“It might have led to a mutual acceptance that if there are fewer incidents, the dialogues could continue, until a success can be achieved some day,” Tayudin, the scholar from Yala Rajabhat University, said.
If anything, the hint of peace seen throughout 2020 underscores the need for consistent negotiations, said Srisompob, the Deep South Watch director.
“Peace dialogue is an important thing that everyone must push for, because if there is no negotiation, unrest could escalate again,” Srisompob said. “If talking stopped, there would be a risk, because no one knows what could happen next.”
Pateemoh Pohitaedaoh, the chairwoman of We Peace, a volunteer group that assists women who lost loved ones in the Deep South violence, said she hopes both sides remain committed to dialogues as means of resolving their differences.
“There have been fewer incidents, but it doesn’t mean violence has disappeared altogether,” Pateemoh said. “That’s why a negotiation is a hope for a lot of people living here.”
Such dialogues are capricious. It is not legally binding, and never recognized as a formal peace negotiation between the two sides – who are vaguely addressed as Party A and Party B in the procedures.
Col. Pramote of the Internal Security Operations Command said his agency supports the government’s bid for dialogues with the separatists. Rakchart, the leader of Buddhist Network for Peace, likewise endorses negotiation as a favorable solution for the ongoing conflict.
But Pateemoh from We Peace said she hopes more voices from women would be heard in the next round of discussions between the two sides, in order to advance protection of women’s rights and encourage more participation from women in local governance.
“Each commission should consider quota for women’s seats, because I think not only men should be seeking a solution, but women should be involved as well,” Pateemoh said.
“If a commission has 10 members, there should be at least three women. If there’s only one woman, she wouldn’t have the courage to speak out.”
Additional reporting Salem Kru