SOUTHERN THAILAND – Bombs go off with mind-numbing regularity in Thailand’s southern border provinces. They are placed in motorcycles, trucks and under rail tracks.
Most are detonated more to shock than kill – unless you happen to be a soldier, policeman, or someone deemed by separatist insurgents to have acted against the interests of the Malay-Muslim majority there.
Yet last week, four-year-old Mitra Wohbah and her father died when a bomb went off in front of her school. It triggered a stronger than usual outcry from locals, having come after a relative drop in civilian casualties in the longstanding conflict that has claimed more than 6,000 lives so far.
Most attacks in the “deep south”, which includes the provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and a part of Songhkhla, go unclaimed. But a member of a key insurgent group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), reportedly told online news portal Bernar News on the same day that it was responsible for the attack, saying it was a mistake.
More surprisingly, this person from a BRN combat unit called Runda Kumpulan Kecil went on to claim that it was also responsible for the coordinated bombings and arson in tourist districts across seven Thai provinces outside the restive region on August 11 and 12. They wanted to make a point about the stagnant peace talks in the south, he said.
Unlike the southern insurgency – which attracts little public attention – that series of attacks cross “upper south” provinces of Prachuap Khiri Khan, Trang, Phuket, Surat Thani, Phangnga, Krabi and Nakhon Si Thammarat sent shockwaves through Thailand because it took place in high profile tourist districts like Hua Hin, which is home to the royal family’s summer palace. Four people were killed, and over 30 injured.
Almost immediately after those tourist district blasts, the police denied their links to the southern insurgency. There was speculation that the insurgents had been “hired” by anti-government elements to do the job.
Even on Tuesday (Sept 13) – after police had already issued six warrants of arrest for suspects, all from the deep south – key officials continued casting doubt on the possibility that southern insurgents could have orchestrated the August attacks.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said: “I don’t see any potential (threat) from them. If we drag that (BRN) name in, wouldn’t it risk other countries’ intervention?”
There’s a specific logic to this stance, analysts tell me. It helps to downplay the southern insurgency.
“Admitting that the series of bombings in the Upper South is the work of the BRN would amount to admitting the failure of security operation in the Deep South,” says independent analyst Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat. “The Thai state has repeatedly denied the existence of any armed groups in southern Thailand, including the BRN, fearing that the situation will be regarded as non-international armed conflict as defined under the international humanitarian law.”
This could attract more attention and “provide more justification for international intervention”, she says.
Mr Matthew Wheeler of the International Crisis Group says that senior junta officials and military officers “have expressed their concern about ‘elevating’ the insurgents, or raising their status by recognising them as counterparts in a peace-dialogue process”.
“They fear that this could open the door to similar claims by other disaffected groups in Thailand, or even international intervention leading to a referendum on Patani independence and eventual partition of the country.”
The deep south was part of the Patani sultanate until about a century ago.
Bangkok is now a planning a small “front command Cabinet” for the deep south, to be led by a deputy prime minister and senior members of the military and civil service, said Gen Prayut on Tuesday (Sept 13). He has not explained how this would gel with existing military-heavy governing structures in the deep south.
But with the messages from the capital more driven by ideology than evidence, the outcome of investigations into these recent blasts could remain fuzzy for some time.
By Tan Hui Yee – Thailand Correspondent- STRAITSTIMES