Bangkok – Libya, which was once closely identified in the West as a sponsor of state terrorism, has served as combat training ground for some 3,000 new generation of Muslim insurgents in Thailand's deep South for the past two decades, said outspoken General Pallop Pinmanee, deputy director of the Internal Security Operation Command. However, in a sign that Thailand's top security brass couldn't even agree on how big the faceless enemy is, some described the figure as an exaggeration.
At a seminar of 100 security officials on Oct 12, Gen Pallop said the 3,000 southerners were "core militants" with the same skills as Thailand's special forces. They are spread in the three southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat and have been joined by 30,000 local residents who either sympathise with their cause or actively support it, said Gen Pallop.
The general, who is an adviser to Defence Minister Thamarak Isarangura, also criticised the work of security agencies in charge of tackling the southern insurgency, which has claimed more than 1,000 lives since January last year.
"The militants currently use hit-and-run tactics. And if the state continues to send in more troops and put them in particular spots, they will continue to lose,'' said Gen Pallop. He attracted media attention in April last year after ordering troops to storm a mosque to flush out the militants inside, resulting in the death of 32 suspects.
He suggested that the army set up rapid-response motorcycle units of about 12 men to be positioned in each of the 38 so-called "red zone areas" that have come under repeated insurgent attacks.
"So far, we have employed lots of troops to hunt them (militants) down because we fear for the safety of our own men. If it's a one-on-one duel, they can't beat us except when we really run out of luck. We have far better equipment.''
A few senior officers tried to play down Gen Panlop's remarks. Major-General Pongsak Intarawongsak, secretary-general of the Southern Border Provinces Peace-building Command, said that Gen Panlop's remarks on the Libyan connection did not reflect anything new and that the number of key militants that he gave was too high.
An unnamed senior security official from another agency also told The Nation that the tally of 3,000 was exaggerated. He said a total had never been established on how many Thais had travelled to Libya, or other Muslim states for military training.
According to exiled separatist leaders, Libya's support for Thai-Muslim separatists ended more than 10 years ago and that the number of Muslims from Thailand who spent time in north Africa was "in the hundreds".
"They are no longer active and are from the previous generation," one told The Nation on Oct 12.
Libya was a key backer of separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which recently signed a peace agreement with the Indonesian government.
* Panlop lambastes strategy on South (Bangkok Post, Oct 13)
* Militants trained in Libya: Pallop (The Nation, Oct 13)