* Fresh talks to end insurgency follow raid on Thai base
* Doubts whether insurgent leaders can control young
* Insurgent focus of talks on autonomy not separate state
* Southern Thai insurgency threatens ASEAN unity
By Andrew R.C. Marshall
DUKU, Thailand, March 26 Rusnee Maeloh slept
through the 30-minute gunfight that killed her husband, but her
neighbours in the notoriously violent Bacho district of southern
Thailand heard distant explosions and feared the worst.
Mahrosu Jantarawadee, 31, was Rusnee's childhood sweetheart,
the father of their two children, and part of a secretive
Islamic insurgency fighting a brutal nine-year war with the Thai
government that has killed more than 5,300 people.
Mahrosu died with 15 other militants while attacking a
nearby military base in Bacho district on Feb. 13. Acting on a
tip-off, Thai marines repelled the attack with rifle fire and
anti-personnel mines. "He died a martyr," said Rusnee, 25,
dabbing her eyes with a black headscarf.
Just over two weeks later, the Thai government agreed on
peace talks in neighbouring Malaysia with the insurgent group
Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front, or
BRN). Although the first round is set for Thursday, there has
been no halt in the fighting and people in the region see no
early end to one of Southeast Asia's bloodiest conflicts.
In a rare interview, an operative for BRN-Coordinate, a
faction blamed for most of the southern violence, told Reuters
the talks were "meaningless" and "tens of thousands" of
Malay-Muslims would fight on.
An older generation of insurgent leaders has struggled to
control young jihadis like Mahrosu, said the operative,
nicknamed Abdulloh. This raises doubts over the BRN's ability to
meet the Thai government's key initial demand at the talks: stop
the escalating bloodshed.
Thailand is dominated by Thai-speaking Buddhists, but its
three southernmost provinces are home to mostly Malay-speaking
Muslims. They have chafed under the rule of faraway Bangkok
since Thailand annexed the Islamic sultanate of Patani a century
ago. The latest and most serious violence erupted in the early
"This round of talks will not result in any formal deals,"
said Paradorn Pattanathabutr, secretary-general of the National
Security Council (NSC), Thailand's lead agency in the process.
"We will ask them to reduce violence towards certain groups and
More insurgents were killed during the Bacho raid than in
any other single clash since April 2004. But even this rare
defeat revealed their growing military sophistication, the depth
of local support they enjoy, and their links to Malaysia - long
an insurgent safe haven and source of bomb-making materials and
other supplies, say security analysts.
Thailand's southern provinces are only a few hundred miles
from Phuket and other tourist destinations, but the insurgency
is poorly understood, partly because it doesn't fit the pattern.
Long-running sub-national conflicts are usually found in weak or
failing states, not along the border of two prospering allies in
a fast-developing region.
Thailand's homegrown jihad also rarely blips on the global
security radar. That's because the militants have no proven
operational link to Al Qaeda or regional terror groups such as
the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiya, although they do boast a
secretive, cell-like structure and are partly driven by
post-9/11 jihadi zeal.
The militants, who number in the low thousands, are ranged
against 66,000 soldiers, police and paramilitary forces spread
across a conflict area half the size of Israel. Like their U.S.
counterparts in Afghanistan, Thai soldiers face a ruthless enemy
sheltering amid a largely hostile Muslim population.
Their pitiless response has further fueled the insurgency.
The dispersal by soldiers and armed police of a protest at Tak
Bai town in 2004 led to deaths of 85 Muslim men and boys, mostly
by suffocation, after they were stacked four or five deep in
Mahrosu Jantarawadee symbolises the divide between Muslims
and Buddhists in southern Thailand - a martyr to some, a
murderer to others. He was born, killed and buried in Bacho, an
area of rice fields and rubber plantations the Thai military
calls a "red zone" of insurgent activity.
Hundreds of mourners cried "God is great!" at his funeral in
Duku village. Mahrosu's family and neighbours believe he died
while fighting a holy war against a Thai government whose harsh
assimilation policies have suppressed their religion, language
Mahrosu is no hero to the authorities or to the relatives of
his alleged victims. The Thai military links him to an
eight-year streak of gun and bomb attacks that killed at least
25 people. Sometimes, said the military, he shot his victims and
then set their bodies alight. His mug shot appears on posters at
heavily fortified police stations across the region.
One of his alleged victims was teacher Cholatee Jarenchol,
51, shot twice in the head in front of hundreds of children at a
Bacho school on Jan. 23. The children included Cholatee's
seven-year-old daughter. "She's scared she'll be killed next,"
her mother Fauziah, 47, said.
Cholatee was one of at least 157 teachers killed by
suspected insurgents since 2004, ostensibly for being government
Mahrosu was advised not to attack the Bacho military base,
said Abdulloh, the BRN-C operative. A wiry man in his sixties
dressed in a tracksuit and sneakers, Abdulloh met Reuters in a
teashop in Yala, the capital of Yala province, in a shabby
neighbourhood known locally as "the West Bank".
Like many militants, Abdulloh hides in plain sight in the
towns of the region, although he kept the meeting brief and
clutched a bag that he said concealed a pistol.
"He wouldn't listen to the elders," Abdulloh said, referring
to Mahrosu. "They told him it was too risky to have so many
fighters in one place. But he was stubborn and went ahead."
It was Abdulloh's task to monitor the movement of soldiers
and police, and to liaise between militant cells and what he
called "the elders". He said nine of the 16 dead, including
Mahrosu, were "commandos" - well-equipped veterans who join
forces with villagers to form platoon-strength units for big
The Bacho operation illustrated an insurgent attempt to
"shift military operations to a higher level", said Anthony
Davis, a Thai-based analyst at security consulting firm
IHS-Janes. There are relatively fewer attacks than in previous
years, but they are often better planned and more lethal,
reflecting a "growing professionalisation within insurgent
ranks", Davis said.
The insurgents are also making more - and bigger - bombs. On
March 15, just two weeks after the Malaysia talks were
announced, a 100-kg device exploded beneath a pick-up truck
carrying three policemen through Narathiwat province, flipping
the vehicle and scattering body parts across the road. All three
died on the spot.
In towns and villages, insurgents move about with surprising
ease, considering the massive deployment of security forces, and
pay discreet but regular visits to their families.
"He usually stayed for less than an hour," Rusnee said of
Mahrosu. He was already on the run when they married in 2006.
Many insurgents manage to raise families. Mahrosu and Rusnee
have a six-year-old daughter and a 17-month-old son.
The ability to blend with the population also makes the
militants a formidable enemy. Bacho-style insurgent attacks are
logistically complex, said Thamanoon Wanna, commander of a Thai
marine task force responsible for Bacho.
Weapons, ammunition and uniforms must be retrieved from
multiple hiding places, then delivered to commandos arriving
from all three war-torn provinces. "They have supporters in the
village but right now we don't know who they are," Thamanoon
These militant cells have become "self-managed violence
franchises", said Duncan McCargo, a British scholar of Thailand
and the author of Tearing Apart the Land, a book on the southern
conflict. How to rein them in will top the Thai government's
agenda at this week's talks in Kuala Lumpur.
LINKS ACROSS BORDER
Malaysia established its role as a regional peacemaker after
helping broker a deal between the Philippine government and
Muslim rebels in October. Doing the same in southern Thailand is
complicated by the fact that insurgents often seek refuge across
a porous border in Malaysia. Those suspected links, which the
Malaysian government denies, have periodically strained ties
Yet, bringing peace to southern Thailand without Malaysian
help would be like ending Northern Ireland's "troubles" without
the Republic of Ireland. "The Thais have got to stop demonising
Malaysia and be ready to work with them," McCargo said.
The BRN-C operative Abdulloh was pessimistic about the
talks. The main insurgent delegate, Hassan Taib, who has
identified himself as "chief of the BRN liaison office in
Malaysia", has no control over the fighters, he said.
McCargo also questioned Hassan's credentials, saying: "The
question is whether he can bring other people to the table."
Historically, Thai governments have used dialogue to identify
the movement's leaders and "then buy them off or get rid of
them," said McCargo. "So you can understand why the militants
are so suspicious."
Thailand's powerful military also has reservations. It has
been lukewarm about the talks that confer legitimacy on an armed
movement Thai generals have dismissed as more criminal than
The talks could encourage ethnic Malay Muslims in southern
Thailand to express political aspirations Bangkok has long
viewed as disloyal. Thailand's militants are often described as
"separatists". But many southerners acknowledge that creating a
tiny new Islamic republic sandwiched between Thailand and
Malaysia is, as McCargo put it, "a fantasy".
Abdulloh, who is bullet-scarred from a decades-old gunfight
with Thai troops, seemed to be one of them. He wanted the Thai
government to apologise for past human rights abuses and
recognise a "Malay homeland", but stopped short of demanding a
Even so, any solution will likely have to include greater
autonomy for Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. Thailand is highly
centralised, with the governors of its 76 provinces appointed by
Bangkok. The three southern border provinces were traditionally
a dumping ground for venal or inept officials.
It's unclear whether Thailand will offer greater self-rule,
or anything else that will make the process any more successful
than a string of semi-secret dialogues since 2005.
Winning over locals in the hardest-hit areas could be the
"Of course we welcome a peace agreement, if the Thais are
sincere," said Zakaria bin Adbulrasid, whose 28-year-old son
Barkih Nikming was also killed during the Bacho raid and given a
martyr's burial in the nearby village of Cuwo. "But their
promises of peace and justice are all lies."