15 Killed in Southern Thailand, in the Worst Violence in Years

BANGKOK — Gunmen killed at least 15 people at a security checkpoint in southern Thailand on Tuesday night, the worst outbreak of violence in years in the country’s insurgency-plagued border region.

The attackers stormed several spots around the checkpoint, in the Muang Yala District in Yala Province. The post was guarded by a mix of village defense volunteers, police officers and other security personnel, officials said.

Eight people were killed on the spot, while seven died in the hospital, hospital staff said. Three more people sustained serious injuries. Officials said that the gunmen also stole weapons from the checkpoint.

“Everywhere I stepped with my feet, it was all blood,” said Saritphan Sae-jang, a rescue worker who rushed to the scene Tuesday night but was delayed by the nails and fallen trees that the militants had scattered across the road to foil any rescue effort.

Mr. Saritphan has worked for the Mae Kor Neaw Foundation, a local charity, as an emergency rescuer for nearly 15 years.

“I have never seen so many dead people at the scene of one incident,” he said.

Since an ethnic Malay Muslim insurgency renewed its campaign against the majority Buddhist state 15 years ago, more than 7,000 people in southern Thailand have been killed counting both sides of the divide. The assault on Tuesday claimed victims from both faiths, but no one has claimed responsibility, which is common for such attacks, officials said.

“This is a dreadful incident,” said Lt. Gen. Kongcheep Tantravanich, a Ministry of Defense spokesman, adding that orders had gone out to “the forces to bring the culprits to justice as soon as possible.”

The three southernmost provinces bordering Malaysia, which are the only Muslim majority part of the country, are not far from some of the powdery beaches that lure foreign tourists to Thailand. But violence rarely extends beyond the confines of those provinces, once an independent Muslim Malay sultanate before Buddhist-majority Thailand imposed its political will.

The attacks usually come in the form of ambushes on checkpoints or bombs targeting military outposts or crowded locations, like shopping malls or hotels. Drive-by shootings of village chiefs and others seen as tied to the state are common. Beheadings and the burning of bodies, particularly of female teachers, have horrified Thais.

Unlike some other Muslim insurgencies, which have tied themselves to transnational organizations like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, the militants in southern Thailand so far have focused more on localized grievances than calls for a global jihad.

Yet their ambitions for southern Thailand are hardly unified. Some militants have pushed for autonomy, while others have demanded outright independence. Others do not say anything at all, preferring to let the violence, which at its peak was claiming dozens of lives each month, speak for them.

The aim of much of the bloodshed, which overwhelmingly targets civilians, appears to be terrorism for its own sake, said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, the director of Deep South Watch, which monitors insurgent activity.

“The number of violent incidents has decreased over the past three or four years but the movement of insurgent cells is alive and well,” he said. “The military doesn’t know exactly whom to talk to, whom to negotiate with, whom it’s fighting, so it spends a lot of money on security with marginal, insignificant returns.”

Over the years, the central government has transformed the region into what feels like a giant occupation zone, with checkpoints, barbed wire and armored vehicles dotting a landscape of mosques, rubber plantations and palm trees. Around 60,000 Thai security forces are stationed in the three southernmost provinces.

To protect themselves from the insurgents, villagers, including Buddhists who were encouraged to move down south by economic incentives, have banded together in corps of armed volunteers. After receiving a modicum of military training, the volunteers are assigned to checkpoints. The homegrown militias are given names like “the eye of the pineapple,” in reference to the spots that pepper the fruit.

Most of those who died on Tuesday night were members of such a volunteer defense squad. The majority were elderly residents, said Mr. Saritphan, the rescue worker.

“They sacrificed their time to take care of the village,” he said. “It’s very sad. Nobody wanted this to happen.”

Lt. Gen. Pornsak Poonsawat, the chief of the 4th Army Region, which includes Yala, said that the insurgents deliberately targeted checkpoints staffed by “volunteers or villagers, who work by day and volunteer by night, so that they can create news to shock Thais.”

Three months ago, four other village defense volunteers were killed in a raid on a checkpoint in Pattani, another of Thailand’s southern provinces.

Last month, a Buddhist judge in Yala shot himself in a courtroom to protest what he said was pressure from above to sentence Muslim defendants to the death penalty, despite a lack of evidence in the case. The judge survived the bullet wound to his torso.

Some ethnic Malays say that even if they do not support independence, they chafe against a Buddhist Thai kingdom that imposes its language and laws on a culturally distinct region. Some have called for Islamic law in the deep south and have urged the teaching of Jawi, the local language, in schools.

With a state of emergency recently extended in southern Thailand, due process continues to elude Muslims accused of aiding the insurgency, human rights groups say. The memory lingers of the deaths in 2004 of nearly 80 Malay protesters who were crowded into trucks by security forces and suffocated in the heat or were crushed.

Last year, a well-known ethnic Malay activist was held incommunicado in a military detention camp for a week. Recruitment of militants profits from such injustices, said human rights defenders.

“The Thai government is fighting a violent separatist insurgency, but that does not empower the military to detain people without access to a judge, lawyer, or their family,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, at the time. “By holding people incommunicado, the military authorities are only increasing distrust among the local population.”

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