The Thai military said it successfully ended a 17-day operation to flush out suspected separatist insurgents from a 35-acre swamp in the Deep South.
Four government security personnel were killed in the operation, along with six suspected insurgents who were praised as martyrs by residents around the marshland in Narathiwat Province.
A joint force of soldiers and police ended the search operation in the area in and around Hutaelueyo, a village in Bacho District, after they found no more threats, said Col. Kiatisak Neewong, spokesman for Internal Security Operations Command Region 4.
“Officials have already cleared the area, there are no more suspected insurgents or anything else there,” Kiatisak said Friday. “They returned the area to locals so that they can live a normal life.”
The security operation began Sept. 28, after suspects holed up in and around the Hutaelueyo swamp. Days of gun-battles followed, as government forces tried to clear the swamp and suspects fired at them, officials said.
They also said the six suspects killed were all from Bacho District, and they were slain in four gun-battles between Sept. 28 and Oct. 13.
Ismail, a young man who lives in the area, said he and many other residents did not see the security operation as a victory for state forces.
“Many villagers view the operation as a clear defeat for the officials and laud the dead as ‘Patani Warriors,’” Ismail, who wanted to be identified by just one name for fear of state reprisal, said. “No forces can suppress them because there would be new men to replace them.”
‘Patani Warriors’ refers to the forces of what was once the Sultanate of Patani, which comprised the present day provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, and four districts of Songkhla Province. These areas are collectively referred to now as the Deep South, where a separatist insurgency has simmered for decades.
Ismail said some “fighters” fearlessly joined the funerals of the “martyrs,” held in two separate cemeteries. Videos on social media showed hundreds of mourners shouting “God is Great,” in praise of the so-called martyrs.
On Oct. 8, ISOC-4 spokesman Kiatisak had said that separatist rebels had incited villagers by giving them wrong information. He also claimed that officials had brought together suspects’ relatives and religious leaders to convince the rebels to surrender, to no avail.
Meanwhile, one Hutaelueyo villager said many locals feared there would be more violence.
“Villagers are paranoid because we don’t know if officials will come to arrest anyone else again, or if they kept a watchful eye on anyone who had joined the funerals,” the villager, who wanted to be identified as Gaya, said.
This latest spate of violence came after a Sept. 6 message linked to Barisan Revolusi Nasional (the National Revolutionary Front or BRN), the largest and most powerful rebel groups in the majority-Muslim, Malay-speaking Deep South provinces.
The message appeared to urge combatants to “resume self-defense operations” because, “Siam’s security forces set up raids and conducted summary executions despite COVID difficulties.”
A combatant and analysts confirmed that the page was linked to the rebels, but at that time Kiatisak questioned whether the page represented the militant group.
Since the decades-old insurgency reignited in January 2004, more than 7,000 people have been killed in the region along the Thai-Malaysia frontier, according to Deep South Watch, a think-tank based in Pattani province.