NARATHIWAT – A pre-dawn raid on a Thai military base ended with 16 Muslim insurgents killed on Wednesday in the deadliest violence in the country’s south in nine years, marking a dangerous escalation in one of Asia’s least-known conflicts.
In the unusually brazen early-morning assault, 100 militants, dressed in army fatigues and armed with AK47 and M16 assault rifles, attacked the base in Narathiwat province, unit commander Captain Somkiat Pholprayoon said.
He revised the death toll to 16 from an earlier 17. None of the Thai military defenders of the base was hurt, he said.
“We learned of the attack in advance from defected militants,” Colonel Pramote Promin, southern army spokesman told Thai television.
He added that a key local leader of the fighters, who wore bulletproof vests during the attack, had been killed in the clashes.
Southern army commander Lieutenant General Udomchai Thammasarorat called for local villagers to stay in their homes for 24-hours, for their “safety and to prevent any confusion during the pursuit of militants”
Violence is common in Thailand’s south but the scale of the attack and targeting of a marine base illustrate the difficulty Buddhist-majority Thailand faces in preventing the low-intensity Muslim insurgency from turning into a more dangerous conflict.
Although there is no indication of the fighting spreading beyond the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, just a few hours’ drive from some of Thailand’s most popular tourist beaches, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra appears powerless to quell the almost daily gun fights and bomb attacks.
A report by the International Crisis Group on the violence in December said insurgents had grown “bolder and stronger” amid political inaction from successive Bangkok governments.
The attack Wednesday is “part of a trend” towards bigger, bolder attacks by militants showing a new “willingness on the part of militants to engage the security forces head on,” said Matthew Wheeler, an ICG South East Asia Analyst.
“The fact that so many militants were killed is very unusual,” he said, adding the last time there was such a high death toll was in April, 2004.
The ICG report recommended a greater push towards decentralisation and closer engagement with local civil society groups and peace negotiations with insurgents.
It added that the deployment of 60,000 security forces and an emergency decree “have not achieved any appreciable decline in casualties”.