Soldiers inspect the body of a suspected insurgent after a clash with Marines at a navy base in Narathiwat province, southern Thailand. Photo: The Nation.

Soldiers inspect the body of a suspected insurgent after a clash with Marines at a navy base in Narathiwat province, southern Thailand. Photo: The Nation.

Peace process, not military suppression, the way to tackle Thailand’s southern conflict.

Whether or not the heinous blast at Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine is linked to the violent conflict in Thailand’s predominantly Malay Muslim South, it is vitally important to acknowledge that there is strong evidence to suggest that southern militants are likely to have extended their actions outside their traditional theatre of operation.

It is pertinent to recall the New Year’s Eve bombings in Bangkok, which took place three months after the September 2006 coup. A series of nine explosions went off in various locations, including one at a telephone booth not far from Erawan Shrine, claiming three lives and injuring more than 40 people.

The attacks prompted the Thai authorities to cancel all public festivities, including the customary countdown event at the Central World shopping mall.

The then militaryтАРinstalled interim government quickly blamed “those who have lost political interest” – apparently referring to the ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Such response resembles that of the Prayuth ChanтАРocha government to the 17 August bombing.

Speaking to several informed sources about the 2006 bombings, forensic evidence suggested that materials used for bombтАРmaking and detonation circuits were signature of the southern militants. The Bangkok Post reported that the police investigation team concluded that the explosions were carried out by southern insurgents. (See “‘Separatist’ behind city bombs”, Bangkok Post, 19 March 2007). But the investigation was closed with no one being prosecuted.

According to investigations by security forces, two bombing attempts in December 2013 in the border entertainment town in Songkhla’s Sadao district and the popular resort island of Phuket were also likely to be the work of southern insurgents. The motorcycle and car bombings in Sadao injured 27 people, whereas the car bomb in Phuket was defused in time.

Sadao district, which has a Buddhist majority, had never experienced any major bombings prior to that attack. The border town of Sadao has become a popular alternative for tourists looking for entertainment after Hat Yai had repeatedly been hit by deadly bomb blasts. Southern militants consider entertainment venues offering sex services, covertly or otherwise, as “sinful” and therefore the legitimate target of attacks.

Another explosion, which bears the hallmark of southern insurgents, occurred in April this year.

A car bomb went off in the underground car park of a major shopping mall in the southern resort island of Samui, wounding 10 people and damaging several vehicles.

Again, the Prayuth government was quick to blame “the old powerful clique”, whereas evidence from the police investigation pointed elsewhere. The car used to make the bomb was stolen from Yala’s Yaha district in the southernmost region of Thailand and police later placed charges against two Malay Muslims in connection to the incident. However, they must be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

These bombing incidents strongly discount the general perception that southern militants’ operations are contained within Thailand’s Deep South. It is one of the southern militants’ strategies to target an area of economic significance and it is perhaps not beyond their capacity to extend their reach to Bangkok. There are also precedents for attacks against places of worship and persons of religion in the South, notably temples and Buddhist monks.

Having said that, the scale and lethality of the Erawan bombing, which killed 20 and injured more than 120 people, surpass any bombing attacks known, or believed, to have been carried out by southern militants since 2004. High explosive (TNT or CтАР4), found in the Erawan bombing, is not common among the southern insurgents.

An army bomb expert with long experience in southern Thailand said that TNT, a tightlyтАРcontrolled military explosive in Thailand, has been found used only as a booster in IED bombs in the south but not as a blasting agent. Ammonium nitrate fertiliser is more widely used due to its availability. Given the southern militants’ limited access to high explosives, it is doubtful if they are the prime suspects of the Erawan Shrine bombing.

Responses to previous bombings raise a suspicion that the government might again use the classic military strategy of “Information Operations” (IO) to manipulate the truths to its advantage. Such attempt will only do more harm than good to Thailand.

Will this heinous blast lead to a heavy clampdown on southern militants regardless of their involvement in the Erawan Shrine blast?

My take is that the military government’s decision to resume the 2013 formalised peace dialogue initiated by the government of Yingluck Shinawatra suggests the Thai military’s acceptance of its inability to defeat the Malay Muslim militants militarily.

When this peace dialogue was being formed, the military, which had long advocated against holding any formal negotiations, sent a note to the then government attempting to stop it. It is a surprise that the military did not abandon the political project initiated by its political opponent when it took power.

However, the resumption of this peace dialogue should be looked at with cautious optimism. Today, representatives of Party A (the Thai government) and Party B (people who have different opinions and ideologies from the state), as identified in the 2013 “General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process”, will informally meet for the third time in Kuala Lumpur as part of a confidenceтАРbuilding measure.

Party B, the militants, is represented by a loose umbrella group called Majlis Syura Patani (Patani Consultative Council or MARA), formed in March this year. MARA comprises the proтАРdialogue faction of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front, or BRN), three factions of the Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), Islamic Liberation Front of Patani (BIPP) and Patani Islamic Mujahideen Movement (GMIP).

The BRN is known to have the highest military strength among the insurgent groups. MARA is scheduled to have the first press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.

According to a MARA insider, the BRN leadership is divided over the peace process and prefer to take a waitтАРandтАРsee position. Some militants fear the army might not be willing to make any real concessions and hence prefer to negotiate under a democratic atmosphere.

The Malay Muslim militants have long spoken through violence in their struggle for independence, or “self-determination”. They lost faith in peaceful political struggle chiefly after the mysterious disappearance of their respected religious leader Haji Sulong Abdul Kadir in 1954.

If their military capability has been strengthened, it would only reaffirm the need to resolve this deadly conflict, which has claimed more than 6,400 lives, through a process of dialogue and not military suppression.

Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. She formerly worked as an analyst for the International Crisis Group.