Violence in Thailand's deep south hits historic low

Members of a bomb squad unit inspecting the scene following a blast in southern Thailand.
Members of a bomb squad unit inspecting the scene following a blast in southern Thailand.PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (AFP) - Violence in Thailand's insurgency-torn south has fallen to its lowest level in over a decade due to tighter security and fewer rebel attacks on civilians, conflict analysts said Tuesday (Jan 5).

Militants in the Muslim-majority southernmost provinces bordering Malaysia have launched near-daily bomb attacks and shootings since 2004, targeting mostly troops or police but also teachers and other civilians seen as instruments of the Thai state.

The insurgents are seeking greater autonomy from Thailand, which annexed the region more than a century ago.

In total, more than 6,500 people - mostly civilians - have died at the hands of both insurgents and security forces.

But the violence hit a record low last year, with 674 incidents compared to around 1,000 each year since the conflict began, according to Deep South Watch which monitors the violence.

The number of deaths dropped to 246, down from 341 in 2014 and an annual average of 550 throughout the conflict, the centre said.

Most of the casualties were Muslims, who make up a majority of the deep south's 1.8 million people in contrast to the rest of Buddhist-dominated Thailand.

The director of Deep South Watch, Srisompob Jitpiromsri, said the decline in fatalities was a result of a loose agreement by the insurgents to minimise civilian targets, following peace talks first pursued by the Thai government in 2013.

"Secondly, authorities have stepped up defence measures, such as checkpoints and searches in city areas that have prevented militants from easily mounting attacks," said Srisompob.

After seizing power in a coup in 2014, Thailand's military junta vowed to bring stability to the region and reopen the peace process that had stalled under the former government.

It has since sought exploratory talks with representatives of the shadowy militant network.

But the talks have wobbled without the participation of a key insurgent group, and a formal peace process is still far off.

"It's not easy to solve the problem in the south," junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha told reporters. "We can't order something today and have everything be done by tomorrow." Rights groups say peace is unlikely while a tight security net remains over the region.

The area for the past decade has been governed under emergency laws that grant sweeping powers to the state.

Troops and police stand accused of committing regular rights abuses in the region - including extrajudicial killings - and of effectively granting personnel immunity from prosecution.

Last month a 42-year-old Muslim man accused of assassinating a local cleric in the southern province of Pattani died in police custody.