Thai bombings draw attention to forgotten war in south

AP , Monday 15 Aug 2016

Thai bombings draw attention to forgotten war in south
Police Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) official inspects the site of a bomb blast in Hua Hin, south of Bangkok, Thailand, in this still image taken from video August 12, 2016. (Reuters)

It happens with horrifying frequency in southern Thailand, a country much of the world associates with pristine beaches and alluring, sapphire blue seas: a bomb goes off. Victims are maimed or killed. Security forces comb through blood-spattered wreckage and debris.

On Thursday and Friday, 11 more bombs rattled seven Thai provinces, killing four people and wounding dozens more. But this time was different: the targets were not in the country's three southernmost provinces, where a bitter war waged by Muslim separatists has flared for more than a decade.

Instead, they shook towns filled with tourists further north, places like Hua Hin, where 11 foreigners were injured, most by a small explosive device that detonated in a narrow alley filled with bars, restaurants and massage parlors.

Ethnic Malay insurgents launched their armed bid for greater autonomy in Thailand's so-called "deep south" in 2004. But more than 6,700 dead and 12,000 wounded later, the struggle seems more forgotten than ever — a reality illustrated by a flood of weekend media coverage that dwarfed the usual trickle of reporting about the far-southern conflict.

"Sadly, people get used to violence. The media gets bored with it. The story becomes mundane," said Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, an independent analyst and expert on the insurgency.

If it turns out insurgents were responsible for last week's bombings, it would mark a dangerous new expansion of the low-level war that has plagued the mostly Buddhist country's southern border region with Malaysia.

It could also prove a dangerous incentive to carry out more violence.

With few exceptions, the militants have so far avoided attacking known tourist destinations because "they didn't want to be seen as a terrorist group," Rungrawee said. "But that could change if attacks like this prove effective" by attracting greater attention to a war that's ground on largely out of sight for years, he said.

While there has been no claim of responsibility and authorities have yet to blame any specific group, police investigators and analysts say the latest violence bears striking similarities to the methods used by the separatist militants who have traditionally limited operations to the Muslim-dominated provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.

The attacks Thursday and Friday took place in seven locations south of Bangkok, including the island of Phuket. The bombs were small and appeared designed to shock rather than induce mass casualties, and left no immediate major impact on Thailand's lucrative tourist industry.

Asked Monday about the possibility that insurgents orchestrated the latest violence, police commissioner Chakthip Chaijinda reiterated words spoken by other top officials over the weekend, saying "there are similarities in bomb-making methods and the equipment."

Authorities say some of the homemade bombs were triggered remotely by cellphones — a tactic used by insurgents. Some of the phones, recovered by police, were reportedly purchased in Malaysia, into which Thai militants are known to cross with ease.

Malaysian police chief Khalif Abu Bakar confirmed Thai authorities have reached out, and officials on his side of the border were searching for those who purchased and sold the phones.

The war in the south flared 12 years ago after security forces shot dead seven Thai Muslims during an anti-government protest in Tak Bai in Narathiwat province, and hauled away 78 others packed so tightly they died of asphyxiation.

Muslims in the south say they don't feel like full members of Thailand's majority Buddhist society and complain of discrimination, rights abuses and arbitrary detention. The provinces in the south once belonged to a Malay sultanate which Thailand annexed in 1902.

The insurgents are split into several factions, the strongest of which is the Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, or BRN. The groups' leadership, organizational structure and membership are secretive, so much so that Rungrawee said some recruits who have taken part in attacks were not even aware of which faction they belonged to.

The government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra began peace talks with separatists in 2013, although there was some doubt about whether the leaders attending fully represented insurgents on the ground. Yingluck's government was toppled in a coup a year later, and the junta that rules Thailand has continued the effort.

Talks, however, have gotten bogged down in such basic parameters as identifying the insurgents. Thailand's government insists on referring to them simply as "people with different opinions from the state," a position the militants reject.

John Blaxland, a senior fellow at Australian National University, said he believed militants could have launched last week's bombings to increase their bargaining power at the negotiating table.

"If my theory is correct, the message is: 'We want you to make more concessions in the south of Thailand,'" Blaxland said. "They figure that the message is better heard through actions."

Pongphisoot Busbarat, a lecturer at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, said if the militants were responsible for the bombings, they could be trying "to show that the hawkish approach adopted by the military is not acceptable."

Thailand's military junta has shown little tolerance for dissent since it overthrew a democratically elected government two years ago. Critical opinions are suppressed and critics are regularly whisked away to army bases for questioning.

On Aug. 7, the government held a successful referendum on a new constitution that will cement the military's powerful hand in politics for years to come.

In the week leading to the vote, insurgents registered their clear opposition to the charter by spray-painting the words "Referendum X" and "Constitution X" onto roads, street signs and schools across the south. Significantly, they did so in Thai, rather than the Malay script commonly used in the south.

They also carried out more than 50 bombings during the first week of August alone.

All were in the south; few made headlines.

On Monday morning, two motorcycle-riding soldiers were wounded in Narathiwat by another roadside bomb, police said. Explosive experts who arrived at the scene detonated a second bomb they believe was intended for those who rushed to the injured troops' aid.

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