Illustration by Antler.
Credit: AFP

PATTANI, Thailand — Quietly, Thailand’s insurgency fight is reinforced by its superpower ally, the U.S.

But America, for now, is only willing to provide guns, gear and guidance. Never boots on the ground, said Randall Bennett, a Bangkok-based senior regional security officer with the U.S. State Department.

“If we step into that, we’re inviting trans-national global terrorism,” said Bennett, whose anti-terror career includes high-profile assignments in Pakistan and Iraq. “It’s completely the wrong approach.”

The hush-hush nature of America’s involvement partly explains why the Western world remains so blind to this conflict.

But even the Thai public seems only moderately interested in the threat of civil war on their own soil. The average Bangkok resident is apt to view the deep south as another planet, a jungly, violence-wracked ghetto that they will never, ever visit.

Tourism into the deep south is essentially non-existent. The only reliable stream of foreign visitors comes from Malaysian men traveling north for booze and rented female company. But their neon-lit love parlors have also been bombed. So have most hotels upscale enough to satisfy foreign sun-and-fun tourists; these are the same hotels favored by senior army officers.

Day in and out, the Thai media dutifully report the sickening violence. The old men drawn, quartered and burned. The children beheaded in their jammies.

But the killers are often dismissed as nihilistic “bandits,” drug runners and extortionists instead of organized, ideological extremists. Strangely, the insurgents’ semi-secret talks with the army have received almost no media scrutiny.

“You would think that, after having 4,600 people killed, the reality of some sort of peace process between the insurgents and the government would be a focal issue for press coverage,” said Anthony Davis, an expert on the conflict with Jane’s Intelligence Review, . “It’s mind boggling what we see in the Thai press: essentially nothing.”

Samart Deesuma sits next to his weapons at his house in the southern Thai province of Yala, March 15, 2007. Samart is the mayor of one of Thailand's most dangerous districts. (Muhammad Sabri/AFP/Getty Images)

Negotiations with terrorists? Out of the question. But some military figures are now acknowledging “peace talks.” They remain skeptical, however, that the men they’re speaking to can actually order the killing to stop, Werachon said.

“There is room to talk,” said the colonel. “But there is no way we’ll use the word negotiate.”

While officers and insurgents parlay in the dark, a military public relations blitz is promoting a kinder, gentler image of the Thai army. Their refrain will be familiar to any observer of America’s war on terror: “winning hearts and minds.”

The days of booting ne'er-do-well officers down south are over, Werachon said. In recent years, the state has also set up villages for widows, both Buddhist and Muslim, while also pouring money into modernizing village farms.

Their hope is that a Muslim home with food on the table will be unmoved by the lure of jihad.

“We understand that military action alone will not solve the problem,” Werachon said. “We need hearts and minds ... it’s the key factor that will contribute to success in the south.”

Loosening the grip?

Conventional wisdom has long dictated that ceding greater autonomy to Islamic Thailand equals political suicide. Heavy nationalism imbued in Thai schools has bred a population incapable of stomaching territorial loss. “Thai people,” Werachon said, “will never allow that to happen.”

But while autonomy is a word that shuts down conversation, the phrase “Keht Bokrong Piset” has recently dominated tea shop gossip throughout the deep south.

Translation? Special governance zone.

In June, a campaigning politician named Yingluck Shinawatra flew south, donned a bubblegum-pink hijab and promised to decentralize power if voters gave her “For Thais” party a chance. Weeks later, her party won national elections. She will soon assume the prime minister’s seat.

What could the incoming premier’s “special zone” bring? Maybe Muslim kids will be allowed to use their Jawi dialect in schools. Maybe provincial governors, appointed in Bangkok, will be chosen by locals instead. Maybe martial law will go away and the army will draw down.

Or maybe the deep south will slide further into chaos, said Choedsak, the Pattani militia captain. Loosening state power, he said, is a baby step towards surrender.

“The bad guys are negotiating with the government while the Thai Buddhists are stuck here,” said Choedsak, dipping his fingers into a baggie stuffed with loose tobacco. He rolled another cigarette and exhaled smoke into the soupy air.

“The effect? More clashing,” he said. “It could very well incite a war.”

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