Bangkok – When Thai soldiers were fighting the southern insurgency in the 1970s, they knew who their enemies were and where they were hiding. But in dealing with the insurgency which began more than a year ago, the soldiers face a big problem: They still don't know who the key separatists are or where their hideouts are.
"Militants in the three southern provinces (Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani) have changed. They do not separate themselves clearly as an armed force living in forests any more, but they stay among villagers. They create an incident, then change and go back to their houses to sleep,'' said General Panlop Pinmanee, deputy director of the Internal Security Operations Command, who once fought communist insurgents in southern Thailand.
The new generation of separatists has also changed their mode of operation from attacking people in authority to launching indiscriminate attacks against both the authorities and innocent Buddhist and Muslim civilians.
The work of the new generation became noticeable when the military's Fourth Development Battalion in Cho Airong district, Narathiwat, was attacked and lost 413 rifles to armed intruders on Jan 4 last year. The attack marked the beginning of the new wave of violence in southern Thailand.
Local villagers refused to tell the authorities about the identity of the militants for fear the authorities could not protect them. The army could only rely on an outdated insurgency database to try and identify the militants.
Security officials just began to learn who they were fighting after the clashes on April 28 last year when more than 100 militants attacked 11 government posts in Songkhla, Yala and Pattani.
The attackers who survived and were arrested revealed they were part of a new generation of separatists who were reorganising their network.
"We are fighting against the new generation who are not key figures of old days. They are religious teachers and pondok students. They are 25-40 years old. Older people who used to be key figures now play advisory roles,'' said Colonel Charin Amornkaeo, intelligence director of the Fourth Army.
The new separatists are forming a network and have not announced their leader. The network consists of the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) which takes charge mainly of public relations through a website, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) group that is responsible for networking, and the Geragan Mujahideen Islam Pattani (GMIP) group that carries out bombing and triggering unrest.
"What the state has yet to cope with is an army of 15,000 militants who have been trained with foreign strategic training courses,'' said an intelligence source.
The network enjoys financial support from overseas sources and local illicit businesses.
"The new generation is showing off their work to raise credit and attract new members. It will not introduce itself or its stance until the next few years have passed, or until it has a strong leader. Then it will introduce itself and present clear demands,'' Col Charin said.
* Militants 'likely to stay hidden' (Bangkok Post, Sept 19)