The latest attack in Yala's Betong district, which the authorities believed would remain untouched, demonstrates that the separatists cannot be dismissed
Expect it to happen when you least expect it. This seemed to be the message the separatist militants had for Thai authorities when they launched a massive car-bomb attack in Yala’s Betong district last Friday.
Until this incident, which claimed three lives and inflicted injuries on more than 30 others, Betong had been untouched by the wave of insurgency that actually erupted in 2001 but wasn’t officially recognised until January 4, 2004. Authorities woke up to it when, in 2004, militants raided an Army battalion and made off with more than 300 weapons. This was when the authorities could no longer dismiss the political underpinnings of the attack.
The Betong attack came seven months after the insurgents had effectively expanded their theatre of violence to include Songkhla’s Sadao district. In December 2013 three bomb attacks had been carried out in Sadao in a single day – two police stations were hit by motorbike bomb and one car bomb was detonated in the heart of the Dan Nok red-light area.
But what was even more nerve-wracking for security officials was the twin-canister bomb, with a blast radius of 500 metres, which was discovered at the Phuket police station compound on that very day in December 2013. The bomb, hidden in a stolen pickup truck, was wired and ready to be set off, except the culprit had forgotten to turn on the switch to arm it. The idea was to demonstrate to the authorities what the insurgents are capable of, according to an exiled Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C) source.
If nothing else, the Sadao and Betong incidents sent a stern message to Thailand’s security apparatus that the insurgents were expanding their violence into new territory and that they would continue to discredit the authorities and make the area as ungovernable as possible.
The two incidents also defied the long-standing conventional belief among Thai security officials that Sadao would be left undisturbed because it served as a transit route for insurgents leaving and entering Thailand through the Andaman Sea.
The same people also believed that Betong would be left untouched due to logistics. There is only one road that leads to this border town and there is hardly anywhere to run and hide.
The Betong attack, as well as the Sadao attack in December, essentially destroyed this argument as the insurgents have proved that they are capable of reaching beyond their traditional grid. Now, whether they can sustain their operation in these newly charted territories still remains to be seen.
Like the warning that preceded the simultaneous attacks on four petrol stations and 7-Eleven convenience stores in Pattani in late May, the Betong attack also had a warning of sorts to minimise casualties. This warning came in the form of a much smaller bomb.
Before the Pattani attacks, the culprit dashed for a waiting motorbike after parking a bomb-laden motorbike next to the station’s fuel pump. Similar obvious moves were made at the convenience stores. And after 10 years of non-stop violence, residents know how to read these signs and make a run for it.
Yet, the insurgents’ restraint is rarely publicised because the authorities make no differentiation among the victims, be they bystanders or directly targeted, since they prefer to demonise the separatists rather than put the conflict and the violence into proper perspective.
The separatists have shifted their theatre of violence from remote areas to urban and “high-profile” sites, thus making civilian casualties almost inevitable. Nevertheless, the issue of collateral damage continues to be a topic of debate within the movement.
The very fact that the BRN and insurgents are concerned about this issue is a positive sign, because it suggests that the benchmark for massive bomb attacks is not necessarily the body count but more the political statement aimed at discrediting the authorities.
The apparent restraint by the insurgents has also suggested that, despite the brutality, which the media often play up, there is room for compromise.
Of course there have been target killings of innocent civilians, including women and children. However, rebel sources and security officials maintain that such killings are of a tit-for-tat nature that usually emerges when one side or the other violates the unwritten ground rules. It is understood that the killings of Muslim religious leaders is basically prohibited, no matter how close they might be to the separatists, as is the killing of innocent Buddhist monks, women and children.
Both the government and the separatists are saying it is the “spoilers” that are a growing problem – namely influential figures, crime syndicates, smugglers, drug traffickers and others who have an axe to grind with the authorities.
One way to weed out these spoilers is for the security officials and the BRN cadre to set up a clearinghouse.
Though both sides have acknowledged the benefits of having such a clearinghouse, they also admit that it is uncharted territory.
In the past, communication between local government officials and separatist militants had been channelled either through the combatants’ parents or a trusted go-between, like a village imam. But that was on a case-by-case basis.
A clearinghouse, on the other hand, would comprise people from both sides who have a wider bird’s-eye view of the conflict. The project would also require the blessing of top leaders from both sides before the forum progresses and evolves into something bigger and better. This could also mean more horse-trading.
The difficult part, it seems, is taking that first step. So far no interlocutor has been found. The ulema who have thought about taking up this role say they don’t trust either side to keep their word. Besides, the situation is not conducive to such an initiative because there will still be people out there who disagree with this initiative and prefer to use the long-standing method – bullets – to settle old scores.
Don Pathan is a security analyst based in the South of Thailand. He is also member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com).