Rusnee Maeloh slept through the 30-minute gunfight that killed her husband, but her neighbors 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 neighboring Malaysia with the insurgent group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front, or BRN). Although the first round was set for yesterday, 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 (BRN-C), a faction blamed for most of the southern violence, said 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 2000s.
“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 toward certain groups and soft targets.”
More insurgents were killed during the Bacho raid than in any other single clash since April 2004. However, 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 kilometers from Phuket and other tourist destinations, but the insurgency is poorly understood, partly because it does not 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 is 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 US counterparts in Afghanistan, Thai soldiers face a ruthless enemy sheltering amid a largely hostile Muslim population.