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Asia

More guns to increase 'tit-for-tat violence' in southern Thailand

In a bid to protect locals from an insurgency, Thai authorities have distributed thousands of rifles to villagers; a move likely to backfire and increase violence in the country's south, analyst Zachary Abuza tells DW.

Vowing to protect locals, Thailand's military-led government has distributed some 2,700 military grade assault rifles to mostly villagers in the country's Muslim-majority south, a region which has witnessed an insurgency since the 1960's which has claimed the lives of thousands.

According to a government spokesman, the move comes in response to a recent slew of shootings and bomb attacks on civilian "soft" targets in the area. The military-led government, which took power in a coup this May, has pledged to pacify the region.

The insurgency began when the mostly Muslim population across the southernmost provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala was denied recognition as a culturally separate ethnic minority. Violence intensified in 2004, following a raid on a Thai army depot blamed on insurgents. Since then, analysts estimate that more than 6,000 people have died in the conflict - the majority civilians.

In a DW interview, Zachary Abuza, an independent researcher on Southeast Asian security, says that while this isn't the first time villagers in these provinces have been armed by the government, the increasing number of weapons may exacerbate the "tit for tat" violence in the region.

DW: What are the main factors driving the conflict in southern Thailand?

Zachary Abuza: The insurgency is based on identity - it is not a Salafi jihadist struggle. Thailand has ruled the three Malay-dominated southernmost provinces for almost 300 years. Unlike every other region where the modern-day Thai nation-state expanded, only the Malay south has resisted assimilation.

Thailand Soldaten in der Unruheprovinz Narathiwat 04.11.2014

Abuza:'The Thai authorities have trouble defeating the insurgents because the revolutionary front is highly compartmentalized'

Thailand is an overly centralized state, and there is no autonomy. Government officials, including the state governor, are all appointed by the central government in Bangkok. The educational curriculum's goal is central to assimilating the Malay. The government will not allow Malay to be used as a language of instruction and barely allows it for any official purpose; indeed most government officials in the south are all Siamese and speak no Malay.

There is a lot of prejudice against the Malay, who feel there is no space for them in the construct of the Thai state, whose three pillars are the monarchy (a Hindu god-king), religion (Buddhism) and the state (overly centralized Thai-dominated bureaucracy). In addition, the insurgency is driven by resentment towards - or retaliation against, depending on your perspective - abuses by state security forces that operate with legal impunity there.

Why has the Thai government failed to crack down on the insurgents?

The current iteration of the insurgency has been going on for over ten years now, closing in on eleven years. Over 6,200 people have been killed and almost 11,000 wounded in that time. There has always been insurgency in the south, but in the 1970s-90s, the Thais were able to take advantage of the fact that the various groups were divided along ideological and tactical lines. At the time, the Thai military had considerable experience in counter-insurgency: they brought development to the region and effectively employed general amnesties.

The Thai authorities have also had trouble defeating the insurgents because the revolutionary front - the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) - is highly compartmentalized. The whole leadership lives in Malaysia, and the field commanders, known as Juwae, are very autonomous. They are not micromanaged: they are given latitude to conduct operations based on their security environment. Insurgents are very cautious and only attack when they have a high probability of success and not getting caught.

In the past the insurgency was confined to the countryside - today it is a mix of attacking security forces and teachers in the countryside, targeted killings, and bombs against soft targets in the towns and cities. The insurgents mix it up to keep the government off guard.

Moreover, the government has been unable to come up with an effective legal mechanism to deal with the insurgents. Suspects can be held for 28 days without charge, but then they have to be charged in court or released. Most are released and even those that go to trial, 80 percent are acquitted.

The police are either unable to get enough evidence or no one will testify. The army is furious at this, and there are intense rivalries between the myriad of security forces. The result is that the security forces often engage in extra judicial killings, which seem to be on the rise. These, in turn, create a popular backlash.

How wise is it to hand out sophisticated assault rifles to villagers without any military training?

This isn't the first time that civilians have been armed. In 2004-05 they started to arm village defense volunteers (VDVs), but mysteriously, almost all the weapons fell into the hands of insurgents. So there was a rethink. By 2007, there were two separate programs: one was run through the Ministry of the Interior, the other was run by the Queen's Guards, the influential army unit that the current coup leaders hail from.

What is different this time is that they are being given HK-33 assault rifles, i.e. military grade weapons. This program is enormously unpopular and everyone that I have interviewed here in the past few days is aghast by it. Since July 2007, security forces have operated under the Emergency Decree, which gives them immunity for their actions.

The question that no one can give you a straight answer to is on whether the VDV's are covered under the emergency decree. Do they have immunity? Again, I know of no case where a VDV has been convicted, and yet there is a lot of vigilante justice and extra judicial killings.

Given that the conflict in southern Thailand has been going for decades, why distribute rifles to the population now?

The military thinks they can either defeat the insurgents or degrade them to the point of irrelevancy through force, which I do not see happening. For the past three months, violence has been down to historical lows, but my sources in the BRN tell me that it is just tactical; it is not because they are degraded.

What is clear to me is that violence has really shifted to either a messaging device or retaliatory in nature. For example, there were shootings in Songkhla's Thepa district over the weekend, in which three Buddhist men and seven others, including a girl, were wounded by gunmen. They left a leaflet at the scene that said, sorry, we hit the wrong people and it was a mistake. Last month six schools were set on fire, which the BRN told me that was in retaliation for the torture of young insurgent suspects who had been detained.

Thailand Soldaten in der Unruheprovinz Narathiwat 04.11.2014

The military thinks they can either defeat the insurgents or degrade them to the point of irrelevancy through force, says Abuza

So there's a lot of tit for tat violence. I fear that more arms in the countryside, especially in the hands of people who are really not in the chain of command, is going to exacerbate this problem. The government clarified that the guns were only going to the MOI-run VDVs and insisted that they were in the chain of command, but these volunteers are out in the villages on their own. There is no real oversight - they have near total autonomy.

Peace talks have suffered a setback in light of the May coup. What would be necessary to reach a peace deal in the southern region?

I don't think the military is serious about peace talks. They want the violence to end, but they are unwilling to make any of the concessions on autonomy, language, ending security force impunity, recognizing Malay rights, etc. that would satisfy the insurgents. The coup has only led to a desire to decentralize political power even more.

Part of the problem in the south is a coordination problem. There is a dizzying number of security forces operating in the area: the Royal Thai Army, marines, police, border patrol police, the paramilitary rangers, Ministry of Interior troops, the two different village defense volunteer agencies, and the National Intelligence Agency. Guns they've got! They don't need more guns in the south, they need more accountability.

Zachary Abuza is an independent researcher on Southeast Asian security and the author of TheConspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand, published by the United States Institute of Peace.