Several incidents of violence in southern Thailand have raised doubts about the Thai government's claims of progress towards ending years of conflict with ethnic Malay separatists, that have left over 4,000 dead.
Over 4,400 Buddhists and Muslims have been killed by insurgents in southern Thailand in the past seven years
The raid last Thursday on an army base in the southern Thai province of Narathivat by up to 30 armed rebels was one of the boldest in seven years of violence.
The soldiers were eating their evening meal when the insurgents made their appearance. A gunfight ensued and the base commander and three soldiers were killed. The wounded were rushed to local hospitals.
There are some 30,000 soldiers stationed in the southern region of Thailand
Media reports said that the armory had also been looted and the gunmen had made off with weapons.
Not prepared enough despite warnings
On Monday, the government admitted that although there had been warnings of a pending attack the area troops had not been fully prepared.
"The area is very difficult to control," explained government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn. "The armed groups who operate in that area move around quite a lot. It remains one of the strongholds of the militant groups in the area."
The Thai security forces also announced that they had made several arrests over the weekend after an intensive search for the insurgents, who are thought to be ethnic Malay Muslim separatists.
Drive-by shootings, ambushes and roadside blasts are typical for the rebels who stepped up their insurgency against predominantly Buddhist Thailand in early 2004. Since then, the conflict has claimed the lives of over 4,400 people, both Buddhist and Muslim.
Major setback for government
The raid marks a major setback for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government, which has made several claims of progress in the south thanks to its policy of demilitarization and handing over more control to local troops. It has also been considering gradually removing emergency rule.
But Benjamin Zawacki from Amnesty International who was recently in the restive region was not sure this would make a difference to the people on the ground.
"Most people seem to concede things are better now than they were two years ago, when they were really at a low point. But there are certainly ongoing frustrations. The lifting of the emergency decree really means very little to people - positively or negatively," he explained.
Internal armed conflict, say rights groups
Looking at casualties and the longevity of the violence, Amnesty argues that it represents an internal armed conflict and not only an insurgency linked to criminal gangs as the government has claimed.
The violence marks a setback for Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva who has argued that there has been progress
In a recent report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group accuses the security forces of abuse and torture. It also claims that calls for justice for past abuses have been left unanswered.
Angkhana Neelapaichit is a rights advocate whose husband, a human rights lawyer, disappeared in 2004 and is believed to have been murdered. She says that Malay Muslims in the south are caught between the government and security forces on the one hand and the insurgents.
"It's very difficult for them because the security forces cannot protect them so they do not give so much information to the Thai government. If they do not trust the government maybe they want the insurgents to protect them."
She also accuses the security forces of keeping blacklists of targets and carrying out extrajudicial killings.
Some 30,000 soldiers are stationed in the region along with thousands of paramilitary troops.
Author: Ron Corben (Bangkok)
Editor: Anne Thomas