Some days after the Mother’s Day blasts and arson attacks in the Upper South and Prachuap Khiri Khan, authorities still can’t say with any certainty what happened at each incident, about 15 in all, who the culprits are — though manhunts are on, and why. No group claimed responsibility or demanded any terms, making it easy for false rumours and conspiracy theories to spread, especially via social media.
Some of these are fueled by remarks from the government side, pointing in the direction of the “groups who lost power”, implying the red shirts and allied politicians. Supporters of the opposition, on the other hand, surmised the military regime arranged the attacks to create an excuse to wipe out its political enemies once and for all, Turkish style.
But academics and the international community who follow closely the events in the deep South are inclined toward the Muslim separatist movement. Contrary to popular belief, this is not the first time they have operated outside the three provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani, although it is the most widespread and damaging to date.
Let’s go through this point by point. First, I do not believe the red shirts or Pheu Thai Party operatives have the capability to carry this out. Since the coup of 2014, politicians, canvassers and supporters of both organisations have been under close watch and suppressed by the military regime. They could barely campaign against the draft constitution in the referendum on Aug 7. If the unrest occurred in the North or Northeast, it would be more believable, but even that is highly unlikely for the same reason. It is thus even harder to imagine they could organise a coordinated attack in the South, away from their stronghold.
Allegations on social media of international interference supporting the operations, especially by the United States, with links to exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, are unfounded and ridiculous. They inflame dangerous nationalistic sentiments and constitute hate speech, which must not be condoned.
Second, for the military regime, there is no reason for them to go through such a complicated arrangement to justify their intention to eliminate political threats. The government has the constitution it wanted by public mandate through the referendum, so why should the regime risk its regained legitimacy? Also, through the organic laws being drafted, and advancing criminal and civil cases against the opposition, the regime is sitting pretty on its roadmap. However, it does not mean that with accommodating circumstances, the bombing and arson attacks would not be used as a political tool to blame the regime’s rivals.
Third, and most likely, the separatist movement is responsible. Initial reports and evidence collected, although not conclusive, suggests the attacks on Mother’s Day are similar to the techniques and tactics used in the far South.
The past decade has seen an upturn in violence in the area. There are daily explosions and deaths. Mobile phones became remote timers, motorcycles and cars became conduits for explosives, parked outside restaurants, karaoke shops, tea shops and busy outdoor markets. Roads are rigged where EOD units constantly work to defuse and prevent blasts. Targets are mainly army and police personnel, teachers and even monks. But there is always collateral among Muslim locals. Constant threats are made to scare away the minority Buddhist population.
The reverse is also true. The authorities have used harsh tactics in suppressing the movement, raiding villages, and searching homes. They have taken suspects, with many executed or captured, to the detriment of their families and relatives, who felt they were judged without proper and fair judicial process.
News reports are minimal, making the rest of the country oblivious to the incidents, their causes and potential peaceful solutions. National politics is concentrated on the colour-coded conflict, and barely addresses the concerns of the deep South.
There is also a tendency to turn a blind eye by Thais in general, the business community and the government. This is a state of denial where Thais are led to believe, by propaganda, that we live in a peaceful country, the Land of Smiles, and the troubles stem from groups that are an aberration to the norm which can be dealt with by the authorities. Most important, in the name of preserving the peaceful image which is vital to the tourism industry, the problems are usually swept under the rug.
In the news of the past few days, the government has tried to portray Thailand as back to normal: Patong is okay, Hua Hin is back, let the party continue! Diplomats from countries that have issued travel advisories to their citizens will be called for a briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as if they must have misunderstood something. Even the word “terrorism” — karn kor kan rai — is avoided by Thai authorities who instead opted for “local sabotage” or vinasakam chapor jud. But denying reality means not addressing the crux of the problem which can lead to a further deterioration of the situation.
The wake-up call was not the bombings but the result of the referendum. The three southernmost provinces rejected the constitution by large margins: Narathiwat 61.8%, Yala 59.35%, and Pattani 65%. They also recorded the most dud ballots in the country: Narathiwat 7.11%, Yala 6.5%, and Pattani 7.4%. Their rejection, as many said at the time, reflected dissatisfaction with Section 67 of the draft constitution which gives priority to Theravada Buddhism.
But it could be more. One could interpret it as an up-the-ante strategy to provide leverage in the talks with the Thai government which appear to be stagnating at the moment. In addition, the Muslim insurgency would be able to state that without a democratic process, there are no channels to voice their concerns; hence the demand for greater autonomy.
The government must come to terms with this reality. Terrorism must be condemned. The best way to fight terrorism is to not let it create fear and disrupt our way of life, which is the objective of terrorists. In the short term, it is correct the government should set up checkpoints, beef up overall security, reconnect the intelligence network and put in place a more effective warning system. But it should not just be lip service. It must be a continuous effort with involvement from communities nationwide. For the long term, Thais must be made to realise that we are living in a fragile world where violence can erupt anywhere, at any time. The safety of our citizens must be assured. If our people feel safe, visitors from abroad will feel the same. Tough security measures must not be viewed as barriers to the tourism industry, and are a necessary investment and sacrifice.
In the three provinces, measures must be enforced to root out border smuggling including drugs and arms, human trafficking, and the illegal off-shore oil trade. Many such activities are organised crime rackets run by influential locals with ties to politicians and corrupt officials. Large amounts of money ends up financing the insurgency. The line must be cut. The government must act to arrest those involved.
I doubt the people of the deep South want violence or secession. They want religious freedom and a respect for their history, culture and way of life. They are keen to participate in the political process to protect their rights and economic interests, as long as the political arena is democratic, free and fair, and the rule of law exists. The government should enter a dialogue with imams and monks alike, open to participation by the whole community. Acting without prejudice, the government can nurture the right conditions for peaceful co-existence among all of us.
About the author
Suranand Vejjajiva was secretary-general to the prime minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government and is now a political analyst.