The recent killing of a family-of-four, including an 8-year-old boy, by suspected insurgents in Thailand’s southern Narathiwat province has generated a great deal of condemnation from community leaders and rights organizations.
Police have not ruled out personal dispute as a motive in the March 2 slaying of the Buddhist family but the method of attack -- their vehicle was shot up as they drove to school -- suggests the involvement of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), a longstanding separatist movement that controls most insurgents in southern Thailand.
The BRN has carried out a revitalized armed campaign in the southern provinces of Yala, Pathani and Narathiwat since January 2004, targeting teachers, government officials, police, military and civilians.
More than 6,800 people, mostly Malay Muslims, have died in the renewed violence in Thailand’s Malay-speaking provinces.
The provinces were ruled by independent Muslim sultans until being annexed by Thailand more than 100 years ago and the independence struggle escalated in 2004 with the declaration of martial law.
The BRN is not part of unofficial peace talks between the government and the MARA Patani, a network of six separatist groups. In a recent statement, the umbrella group denied any involvement in the March 2 attack.
“We do not condone violence involving civilians and children and strongly condemn the attack,” it said in a statement.
Information on the thinking of the BRN leadership is scarce as the movement has no identifiable political wing but operatives on the ground said they are not supposed to attack innocent civilians.
Mistakes, however, have been made and collateral damage is sometimes unavoidable, they said.
While the insurgents typically practice a high degree of restraint, death squads from both sides of the political divide have, over the past 13 years, deliberately targeted civilians.
However, that has usually been part of the tit-for-tat between separatists and government security forces when one side felt the other had violated the unwritten rules of engagement.
In spite of the long history of such retaliation, there exists a sort of ground rules in this conflict in Thailand’s majority Muslim south.
While the agreement is not a product of a negotiated text, there is nevertheless an understanding between the two sides that there are red lines. Crossing these would invite bloody -- sometimes massive -- retaliation.
In the early years of the insurgency’s current phase, soft targets such as public schools and sometime monks and teachers were targeted -- although not very often.
Government and pro-government death squads also had a similar approach toward Muslim community leaders, Islamic religious teachers and clerics deemed too close to insurgents.
Over time, however, complaints from villagers and criticism from clerics at the grassroots level brought some degree of civility to the conflict.
These “ulema” highlighted that Islam permits Muslims to take up arms against unjust rulers but the fighters -- who they referred to as “juwae” in the local Malay dialect -- are not permitted to mutilate the bodies of government soldiers.
Another example of combatants heeding calls from their civilian supporters is the cessation of arson attacks against public schools -- the very institutions that propagate the state-constructed identity and narrative.
Like any revolutionary movement, the BRN carries out hits on targets they considered fair game. These include spies providing intelligence information about the group’s activities to government security officials.
However, the authorities have blamed just about every violent incident on the insurgents, although they have not succeeded in influencing the narrative that drives the insurgents and legitimizes the armed struggle.
The harder the authorities spin their lines -- or blur the line between what constitutes collateral damage and intentional killings -- the wider the trust gap between the authorities and the local Malay Muslim population.
A BRN operative pointed out that mistakes have been made but a mistake is not the same as intention.
They said collateral damage has been part of their internal debate for a very long time.
Often this is because insurgents tasked with a particular mission, such as killing a suspected spy, feel unable to retreat without successfully executing the mission, even if civilian bystanders are caught in the crossfire.
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