Coordinated bombings, Thailand’s southern conflict and a stalled peace process.
If the recent coordinated attacks in Thailand’s Upper South, which claimed four lives and injured 36, were carried out by southern militants, the next important question is to what extent it would affect the Thai state’s policies towards the ongoing violent resistance in Thailand’s Malay Muslim-majority southernmost region.
While I agree with most independent analysts that these attacks are more likely to be linked to domestic groups rather than transnational terrorist networks such as the Islamic State, I am more convinced that the motive is related to the southern conflict rather than national politics. There are at least three reasons for this hypothesis – I stress that it remains a hypothesis.
First, while most of the southern militants’ operations remain to be in the southernmost provinces, it would be misleading to think that they have neither capacity nor interest in expanding their reach to other parts of the country. The insurgents, who consider themselves as juwae (a Patani Malay word for fighter), have previous records of carrying out violent attacks outside their traditional theatre of operation, which I noted in an article on New Mandala last year.
In December 2013, they made a failed bombing attempt in Phuket together with a series of successful bombings in Songkhla’s Sadao district injuring 27 people. In April last year, another 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.
During that time, the military government was quick to blame “the old powerful clique” and paid little attention to police investigation that pointed to the contrary. Two Malay Muslims were later prosecuted in connection to the Samui bombing. According to police, two pick-up trucks transformed into car bombs in Narathiwat and Songkhla during this year’s Ramadan were used in the Samui operation.
As I was monitoring reactions from the Thai authorities following the recent bombings, I had a sense of déjà vu. General Prawit Wongsuwan, deputy prime minister and defense minister, hastily ruled out the possibility of southern militants’ involvement without waiting to see police investigation results.
While the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front, or BRN) has the strongest military capability, it should be noted that other groups have tried to gain attention by carrying out attacks outside the southernmost region. In a recent interview with this author, leaders of Patani United Liberation Organisation-MKP (PULO-MKP) admitted that the group was responsible for the bombing in Bangkok’s Ramkhamhaeng area on 26 May 2013, which injured seven people.
PULO-MKP was not involved in the 2013 peace dialogue under the Yingluck Shinawatra government and such attack was meant to display its military capacity. In May this year, Criminal Court sentenced four Malay Muslims men to 33 years and four months for their involvement in that bombing.
Second, the choice of targets is in line with the BRN’s strategies – areas of economic significance and “sinful” activities, that are also symbols of the security force. Most of the selected areas are major tourist attractions, such as Phuket, Hua Hin, Khao Lak and Krabi. Shopping malls, discount stores, and shops also represent hubs of economic activity.
In particular, three attacks in Phuket took place near Patong beach, which is popularly known to be a centre of nightlife activities. Two bombings in Hua Hin took place at a bar and massage house on a busy nightlife lane. Southern militants consider entertainment venues offering sex services, covertly or otherwise, as “sinful” and therefore they are a legitimate target of attacks.
Bombs were also left near places symbolising the power of the security forces, including a traffic police outpost, police’s traffic light control booth, a police station and office of marine police.
The bombings carried out by southern insurgents are often not meant to maximise casualties. It is also common for the BRN not to make any claims for its military operations.
It should be noted that while some Westerners were wounded in the recent bombings, the insurgents have not particularly targeted them. However, a small number of foreign tourists, mostly Malaysians, fell victim to previous bombings such as in Hat Yai and the Thai-Malaysian border town of Sungai Golok.
Third, improvised explosive devices (IED) found in these attacks have been used extensively by southern insurgents for the past 12 years. The type of bomb material is different from that of the deadly Erawan Bombing in August last year, which used a tightly‐controlled military explosive (TNT or C-4) killing 20 people and injuring 125.
It was later revealed that the Erawan bombing was triggered by the dissatisfaction with the Thai government’s forced repatriation of Muslim Uighurs to China. Some suspect the Red Shirts or other anti-military groups. Although there have previously been cases of disgruntled individuals who take matters into their own hands and resort to violence, their attempt to plant bombs were amateurish.
The Patani liberation movements are not totally out of Thai politics but rather stand on the periphery. The juwae did not miss the opportunity to express their rejection of the referendum and the draft charter. A few days before the poll, anti-constitution graffiti, such as “Constitution X” “Referendum X”, were sprayed in several locations in the Deep South.
“Vote No” was dominant in Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, whereas the overwhelming majority of voters in other southern provinces voted to support the constitution and an additional question that would allow the military to have significant power in post-election politics.
The referendum result in the Deep South manifests deep resentment against the military/the Thai state as well as the rejection of the charter content, particularly the emphasis on the protection of Theravada Buddhism and the end of state subsidies for high school education. It was unclear to what extent the voters’ decision was influenced by the underground movements.
If the juwae were the perpetrators, these attacks might indicate a significant strategic shift. These bombings have received a great deal of national and international media coverage. Attacks of a similar scale in the Deep South would gain much less attention these days. This might be an incentive to shift their strategies.
If this hypothesis is true, this would be the biggest coordinated bombings to be staged outside their traditional theatre of violence in term of geographical coverage and casualty. It would post a serious security challenge with potentially huge economic implications for the Thai state.
These bombings took place amid the stalled peace dialogue between the military government and MARA Patani, an umbrella group comprising representatives of five liberation groups, including the Patani Islamic Liberation Front (BIPP), Patani Islamic Mujahideen Movement (GMIP), PULO-DSPP, PULO-MKP and some BRN members.
Despite the involvement of mid-level BRN members, its Dewan Pimpinan Parti (Party Leadership Council –DPP) has not formally joined MARA Patani. A senior BRN member told the author that the DPP is waiting to see if the military government is serious about the dialogue.
Talks have hit a snag since Party A (Thai Government) refused to endorse the Terms of Reference that the technical team had jointly drafted with Party B (MARA Patani/People with Different Opinions from the State).
Two major sticking points are that the government does not want the name of MARA Patani mentioned in the terms of reference and is unwilling to guarantee “protection from prosecution” for Party B.
Party A recently sent a totally new draft with the name MARA Patani removed and no mention of any safeguard against prosecution if Party B, which is only defined as “People with Different Opinions from the State”, travels to Thailand. MARA Patani has not responded.
The southern militants have spoken through violence for the past 12 years. The formalised peace dialogue only began in 2013 and has made little progress. The violence on the eve of the 84th birthday of Queen Sirikit and on National Mother’s Day clearly intends to express a strong symbolic challenge against the Thai state, of which the monarchy is placed at its apex.
Heavy-handed suppression and cooptation through social and economic incentives have failed to put an end to the violent resistance calling for self-determination. Intensifying crackdowns would only be counterproductive.
This might be a wake-up call for Bangkok to pay serious attention to the peace dialogue.
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.