Peace negotiations have pushed insurgents further 'underground'

opinion January 16, 2014 00:00

By Don Pathan
Special to The Nat

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Recent attacks reveal that talks between Bangkok and the BRN hold little sway over separatists in the deep South

Last June, the liaison officer for the Barisan Revolusi Nasional delegation representing the separatists at ongoing deep South peace talks pointed out that the historical homeland of the Patani Malays includes Sadao district in Songkhla province. Hasan Taib called on the Thai military to pull out of this small border town, but his request was met with howls of dismay among the local business community.
Businesspeople were worried that placing the district under the spotlight would hit trade in the area, which includes the largest border crossing between Thailand and Malaysia. It also covers Dan Nok, the mini-sin city that has long served as a cash cow for prominent and politically connected local figures. 
A typical Thai border town with relaxed rules and regulations, Dan Nok is a dumping ground for the things nobody wants to talk about publicly – smuggled goods, gambling and prostitution.  
But the hoopla from local businessmen couldn’t deter the insurgents, who were bent on extending the theatre of violence to the district. And so on the morning of December 22, insurgents used motorbike bombs against two police targets – Bedang Besar and Sadao – while the front parking lot of the Oliver Hotel in Dan Nok was hit with a car bomb. 
Dan Nok was at the centre of a month-long festival of lights, a joint effort by tour operators from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. The event was due to stretch from Chinese New Year to Valentine’s Day, but the insurgents chose to crash the party. Not only did the attacks upset the business sector, Thai security apparatus was also jolted. It was the first time Sadao had been hit since this wave of insurgency erupted just a decade ago, and the signs were of more attacks to come.
But even more startling was what appeared to be an attempted car-bomb attack on a Phuket police station the same day. Stuffed with enough explosive to devastate a 500-metre radius, the truck had been parked behind the station for at least two days. Police were alerted to the Phuket threat when the Bedang Besar bomb went off at a police station parking lot on December 22, about 10 kilometres away from Dan Nok.
The Phuket vehicle was immediately towed to the outskirts of the city, where it began to yield bits and pieces of odd information. The bomb’s timer revealed it was set to go off on August 1, 2013 – nearly five months earlier. 
At first, it didn’t make sense to the investigating officers, then somebody reminded them of an incident in Phuket on August 1. A small home-made bomb had gone off in a garbage can at the Phuket city hall, slightly damaging five cars but injuring no one. At the time, everybody assumed local politics was at play. But the attacks on December 22 quickly changed that outlook and suggested the culprits were trying to send a message with the timer date. 
While the attacks in Sadao have all the signatures of the insurgency, many are wondering why Phuket is being targeted. And if there is a link between the August 1 explosion at Phuket’s city hall and the truck-bomb timer found on December 22, then one can safely assume that this plan had been in the pipeline for some time. 
Some security officers have linked the Phuket and Dan Nok incidents to local business disputes. It’s very possible that local kingpins used the insurgents, as they had done before, to get their message across, they said.
Others have linked the Sadao and Phuket attacks back to the May 26, 2013 attack on Ramkhamhaeng Soi 43/1 by an insurgent cell. Although political leaders maintain the Ramkhamhaeng bombing was not linked to unrest in the deep South, security officials confirmed that the attack was a bid by one of the longstanding separatist groups to enhance its leverage in negotiations.  
Unlike other sub-national conflicts where insurgent groups claim responsibilty for attacks so as to enhance their leverage with the state, the conflict in Muslim-majority southern Thailand has yet to develop a proper channel of communication where claims over violent incidents can be properly verified. But a group did claim responsibility for the Ramkhamhaeng operation, stating its aim was to be at the negotiating table. 
Sources among the separatist movement in exile said the situation was not conducive for representatives of any movement to go public and claim responsibility for the attacks. Ideally, such a task should be the work of a recognised political wing that could serve as a channel of communication between the movement and the Thai government and other stakeholders. 
Meanwhile, BRN sources have dismissed ongoing peace talks that kicked off on February 28 last year as a futile exercise. They said the initiative did not have the blessing of the BRN leadership and that it was hastily put together by the governments in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur in the mistaken belief it would lead to something bigger and better. Not only has the February 28 initiative failed to generate traction with insurgents, it has also upset a lot of BRN leaders and cell members.