By Mariyam Ahmad
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has authorized security forces to impose curfews in nine districts of the Deep South after suspected separatist rebels killed 15 people in twin attacks on village defense posts in Yala province on Tuesday.
Prayuth’s directive was issued to “prevent, contain, and manage the situation in areas where there are threats to national security,” according to the Royal Gazette, which published the authorization Friday. The prime minister signed the directive on the day after the attacks.
Prayuth indicated that the directive was spurred by the devastating attacks in Yala, although the announcement made no mention of the violence that killed a mix of police officers, defense volunteers and civilians. The two attacks inflicted the highest death toll in the border region since 2004, when a long-running separatist insurgency flared up again.
“I don’t want the suspects to cross over to other areas,” he told reporters in Bangkok on Friday, as he sought to explain the significance of imposing a curfew. “I will try to make it short for measures announced in the order.”
The authorization under the Internal Security Act permits the director and other appointed executives of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) – the military’s political coordination body headed by Prayuth – to declare a curfew and prevent people from entering or leaving venues related to security operations.
The directive did not make clear what punishment would be given to curfew violators.
The curfew can be imposed from Dec. 1 this year until Nov. 30, 2020 and will cover Betong district of Yala province, Mae Lan district of Pattani province, Sukhirin, Su-ngai Kolok and Si Sakhon districts of Narathiwat provinces, and Thepha, Chana, Na Thawi and Saba Yoi districts of Songkhla province.
The potential curfew affects nine districts that are the only ones in the Deep South not covered by martial law and emergency powers. Tuesday’s attacks took place in Yala’s Muang district.
It would not be the first time for the Thai government to impose curfews.
In May 2014, Thailand’s junta, also led by Prayuth, imposed a nationwide curfew after it seized power, ordering people to stay indoors between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., in a move that affected hotel occupancy, mostly in the capital Bangkok. The curfew was lifted about a month later.
The Deep South borders Malaysia and encompasses the predominantly Muslim provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, as well as four districts in neighboring Songkhla, where almost 7,000 people have been killed since separatist insurgents renewed their campaign against Buddhist-majority Thailand in 2004. The region has a total of 37 districts.
Suspect in custody
On Friday, security forces combed through the mountains of Nangchan in Songkhla province, where at least 21 suspects could have fled after the attacks, Col. Pramote Prom-in, spokesman for the military’s regional command in the Deep South, told reporters. Pramote declined to elaborate.
A man identified as Mayago Lateh, a resident of Pattani province, had been arrested and detained for questioning on suspicion that he helped scatter metal spikes along a highway during the attacks to block police from pursuing the gunmen, officials said.
“[We] want citizens to keep vigil and inform authorities about any suspect. Those who give assistance, refuge to them, will be guilty and punished the same as them,” Lt. Gen. Pornsak Poonsawat, chief of the Fourth Army Region Command, told reporters on Friday.
The general said there was no immediate need to impose a curfew in the region.
“Currently, officials are not disrupted by any individuals or groups of individuals, therefore there is no reason and necessity to declare a curfew,” he said.
Authorities said they had determined that more than a dozen firearms were used in an attack at one of the two checkpoints.
“There were at least 18 guns used in one attack, so there were about 18 direct attackers to that spot and about 40 to 50, when counting all, including supporters,” police Lt. Gen. Ronasilp Poosara said, citing ballistic-test results.
He said tests on spent shells also linked the same guns used in two previous attacks in Pattani and nearby province Yala.
“I’ve talked to the Fourth Army Region Commander, Pornsak, that we would launch an operation to catch them in one or two days,” said Ronasilp, referring to the attackers.
“The perpetrators have criminal records and we know their names,” he said. “Although they may be hiding in the jungle and it is hard to find them, at least we know who they are.”
Muslim leader condemns attacks
On Friday, Thailand’s top Muslim leader condemned the attacks that also killed civilians, saying “killing innocents is a sheer sin.”
“The violence has unavoidably ruined the relationships among Thai brothers – Muslims and Buddhists – inside and out of the [Deep South] region,” Sheikhul Islam Aziz Phitakkumpon said in his message posted on his official website.
“Sheikhul Islam’s Office views the violence as extreme, inhumane and infringing the religious teaching,” he said. “For Muslims, killing innocents is a sheer sin.”
The attacks in Yala took place amid a decline in the pace and intensity of militant violence over the past several years, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), a nonprofit non-governmental organization based in Brussels.
“From a high of 892 fatalities in 2007, the death toll fell to 218 in 2018, the lowest since 2004. It remains to be seen whether the Nov. 5 attack was an aberration or sign of renewed insurgent potency,” ICG said in a report.
But the attacks could be interpreted as “a demonstration by militants of their ability to conduct operations and inflict losses, in spite of the decline in violence in recent years,” ICG said.
“It also highlights that, whatever the government may say, the insurgent campaign is far from over,” the group said.
Bombing suspects plead not guilty
Meanwhile in Bangkok on Thursday, three men from the Deep South pleaded not guilty to terror-related charges stemming from small bomb explosions that injured four people when Thailand hosted a high-level international security meeting in the capital in early August.
“On Nov. 7, the prosecutor indicted Wildar Maha, 27, and Lu-Ai Sae Ngae, 22 and Muhammad Ilhum Sa-i, 27, with soliciting criminal ring and 10 other offenses,” defense lawyer Kijja Ahi-isho told BenarNews on Friday. He said the court called for another hearing on Dec. 16.
The three suspects were arrested in connection with the explosion of nine small devices at four locations during an Aug. 2 meeting in Bangkok of foreign ministers from Southeast Asia and other regions.
Prosecutors said the three men were indicted on 11 counts of terror-related charges, including collusion in terrorism, illegal possession of explosives and other related offences.
The suspects denied all the charges.
Their lawyer, Kijja, said the suspects should be sent to a civilian prison, as their legal counsels were having difficulty interviewing them while under constant watch of soldiers.
“They are jailed in the 11th Infantry Regiment prison,” he said. “We found that it was not comfortable to discuss the case with them under watch of officials.”