The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Former Thai Army Chief Warns of Major Insurgency in the South

A former Thai army commander has warned that Thailand could face a rebellion on the scale of its 1970s communist insurgency that killed thousands, if the government continues its heavy-handed crackdown on Muslim militants in the south. 


Gen Surayud Chulanont, a highly respected retired officer who is now a member of the Privy Council, which advises King Bhumibol Adulyadej, said Muslims complained to him about unjust treatment by the government during a recent visit to the country's restive southern provinces.


Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s tough approach to the insurgency has drawn mounting criticism as it has failed to stem attacks. Suspected rebels last week launched their first car bomb attack in the area. It sparked speculation that local Muslims are forging connections with international terrorists, because it was the first car bomb.


“This long-standing and bitter problem has become chronic. If this wound is not healed properly, it will grow to become a malignant tumor that cannot be cured,” Surayud was quoted by the English-language The Nation newspaper as saying.


In January alone, 34 people were killed and 107 injured in the southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani, said Col Kamron Suwanarat, a spokesman for the police region supervising the area. More than 650 people were killed last year.


People might think they are being segregated. If this feeling is abused, it’s like throwing oil onto a fire.
— Surayud Chulanont, the former Thai army commander


Many of last year’s attacks were hit-and-run shootings, but bombings accounted for 35 of 47 incidents last month, said Srisompob Chitphirsomsri, of Pattani’s Prince of Songkla University, who researches the violence.


Surayud’s remarks were made to a group of reporters during a trip to the area on Saturday. “Thailand had a problem like this before. This will be the second time. The first time was the communist movement. Simply put, there was injustice in the country and it created conditions for communism to grow,” Surayud said.


Surayud was touring the three southern provinces with Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.


Another former military commander and counter-insurgency expert, former supreme commander Gen Saiyud Kerdphol, warned in an interview Tuesday that a military solution will not work in the south, and “using force and heavy-handed suppression only pushes the people into the hands of terrorists.”


Surayud was right in saying the violence was escalating because “people receive unjust treatment from the state authority,” said Saiyud, who is credited with helping defeat the communist insurgency.


“Nobody wants a separatist state, but the normal villagers have no choice,” he said. “They cannot come to the government because they fear for their lives. So to win this war you have to win the hearts and minds of villagers. Make them trust authorities. Then you will win.”


The China-backed communist insurgency grew strong in the 1970s after thousands of university students and villagers fled to the jungle to join the rebels, who grew to a force which peaked at some 12,000 guerrillas.


A general government amnesty in 1980 and Beijing's withdrawal of support for the insurgents led to the movement's demise. More than 12,000 people were killed in the fighting.


Thaksin’s tough approach to the current rebellion included a recent warning that government development funds would be cut off for so-called “red zone” villages deemed sympathetic to the insurgents. “People might think they are being segregated,” Surayud said. “If this feeling is abused, it’s like throwing oil onto a fire.”

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