The killing of 16 militants during a botched raid on a military base in southern Thailand has drawn attention to one of the world’s most brutal and overlooked insurgencies.
Just a few hours’ drive from the hordes of foreign tourists on Thailand’s paradisiacal beaches, Malay-Muslim separatists have waged a violent insurgency against the Thai government for over a decade.
In the early hours of today, a platoon of around 50 militants attacked an outpost of Thai marines in rural Bacho district in Narathiwat province. Wearing combat gear and armed with military assault rifles, they swarmed the base from several angles.
But, tipped off about a possible attack, the marines were on high alert and killed 16 militants without taking a single casualty, said Colonel Pramote Promin, spokesman of the army’s southern command.
It was a rare victory for the military against an increasingly professional enemy. Just last Sunday, five soldiers were killed and five injured in twin bomb attacks in neighbouring provinces.
Analysts fear the latest incident could lead to a spate of reprisals on softer targets.
“The militants won’t take this lying down,” said Anthony Davies, a Bangkok-based analyst for the defence and security analysis agency IHS Jane’s. “I would not be surprised if we see something nasty in the coming week.”
Teachers are particularly vulnerable. In one incident on 22 December, militants stopped a primary school headmistress in Pattani district as she drove out of the gates, and sprayed her windscreen with machine gun fire.
“Everyone ran outside, including many of the children,” said acting head teacher Malasen Arsan, 38. “I had to pull her out of the car and drive her to hospital. Many of the children were crying. She died on the way.”
Education is a frontline in the clash of identities between the deeply Islamic, Malay-speaking population of the southern provinces, and the Buddhist-dominated Thai government that took over this region a century ago.
Many locals see the school system as a tool of Thai colonialism, forcing a foreign culture and language on their children. Human Rights Watch say 157 teachers have been killed since 2004.
The government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has poured money into the region and opened secret peace talks with the militants. But uncertainty over who really leads the insurgency, and how much it has fallen prey to criminalisation and personal vendettas, makes it hard to negotiate.
Ms Shinawatra also faces obstruction from the military. Many suspect it was behind the assassination of local imam Abdullateh Todir in November, who was due to act as a go-between with the militants. His death is believed to have sparked the latest round of tit-for-tat violence.
But Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of the Deep South Watch organisation, remains guardedly optimistic: “This government has a better approach than many in the past. The attacks this week are an attempt to stop the peace process, but many feel it is time to negotiate. They have no alternative.”