Tension is mounting in Thailand’s Muslim South as security officials brace for possible retaliation by separatist militants as the trial of seven suspected insurgents linked to a car-bomb plot in Bangkok two years ago comes to a close later this month.
The seven were detained by Bangkok police during an October 2016 dragnet operation that saw more than 100 Malay youth from the far South rounded up in and around Bangkok.
Separatist militants responded to the roundup with a powerful home-made bomb that ripped through street-food stalls in Pattani, heart of the Malay-speaking South, on October 24, 2016.
One person was killed and 21 others injured in the attack. In May, a Pattani court handed down a death sentence to six men for their roles in the bomb attack.
The bombing came on the eve of the anniversary of the 2004 Tak Bai massacre, an incident that resulted in the deaths of 85 unarmed Patani Malay demonstrators – 78 of whom suffocated after they were stacked one atop another on the back of military trucks.
While no Thai official will talk openly about how their conduct invites violent retaliation, since to do so would put their own activities into question, they nevertheless suffer constant tit-for-tat violence that undermines their claim of success in counter-insurgency operations.
The Bangkok dragnet operation in 2016 was a classic example of sloppy police work that not only invited retaliation but also drove a deeper wedge between the Thai state and the Malay community in the far South.
A senior Thai security official said Bangkok police may have “overreacted” after being jolted by an earlier incident – the wave of bombs and arson attacks across seven provinces in the upper South that took four lives and injured more than 20. When the Bangkok police were told that a stolen Honda Accord used in that two-day operation was heading their way, imaginations ran wild. Some believed the vehicle would be used as a car bomb in the capital.
The approach of the Tak Bai anniversary heightened those fears further. And so they moved quickly to round up more than 100 Patani Malay youth residing in and around the Thai capital.
Warnings were issued in Bangkok to keep a look out for the stolen
vehicle, with police intelligence
designating October 25-30 as the
likely date and Sathorn district as
the likely target for the bombing.
Why Sathorn? The police reasoned that the attacks in August were carried out in provinces with a high number of Western visitors, and Sathorn fits that bill in Bangkok.
Not every security agency shared that assessment, however. After all, with exception of red light districts, there is no one single area in Bangkok that is known for having a high concentration of Westerners.
Moreover, Thai officials who investigated the August 2016 attacks in the upper South noted that the bombs were very small and likely not designed to cause loss of life. The bombers were more interested in discrediting the security apparatus, the officer said.
In the end, the car bomb that Bangkok was braced for never arrived. The insurgents blasted hawkers in Pattani instead.
The mass arrests and detentions in Bangkok became known as the budu case – in reference to the fermented Malay-style fish sauce that police mistook for explosive material while searching apartments.
It is not clear how the seven suspects, who will hear their verdicts later this month, are connected to the stolen Honda sedan or the alleged car-bomb plot in the capital.
But human rights groups and local activists are watching the case closely, anxious to hear a verdict that has attracted much media attention, mainly because of the Bangkok bomb rumour.
They know that the bomb attack on Pattani food stalls was not the first time, nor will it be the last, that insurgents have retaliated against Thai authorities by going after “soft” targets.
This January, a motorbike bomb was detonated at a Yala fresh market in retaliation for the rounding up of about 50 local young men from the province’s Than To district. The 50 were netted in a mop-up operation by Fourth Army Area troops after a passenger bus was gutted in a firebombing by insurgents two weeks earlier.
Publicly, no government spokesperson would make the connection between the Yala market attack and the detention of the 50 young men. Nor would they admit that the blast at the Pattani foodstall was retaliation for the mass roundup of Malay men in Bangkok. But quietly, at the operation level, many officials are hunkering down as they brace for possible retaliation from militants who have already shown that, after 14 years of counter-insurgency, they can still hit the Thai security apparatus practically whenever and wherever they please.
Don Pathan is a security and development consultant based in Thailand and a member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com), a civil society organisation dedicated to critical discussion about the conflict and insurgency in the country’s far South.