Southern Thai Bombings Disrupt Peace Process

In a grim illustration of the difficulty of bringing Thailand's Islamic insurgents to peace talks, two bombs were apparently set off Saturday in protest of the talks by splinter groups in southern Narathiwat Province, wounding six people and causing heavy property damage.

As Asia Sentinel reported Saturday, the insurgency in Southern Thailand comprises as many as 20 different groups, often in competition with each other for primacy as well as being arrayed against the central government in Bangkok. From the start, there were concerns over whether the Thai and Malaysian governments could find the right ones to negotiate with.

The explosions followed the announcement Thursday that the Thai and Malaysian governments had agreed to negotiations with one of the major insurgent groups, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front), in Kuala Lumpur. Some observers said the talks were more aimed at shoring up Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak's support in the Malaysian states bordering Thailand than at bringing the insurgents to the table.

The memorandum announcing the negotiations was signed in Malaysia's administrative capital of Putrajaya by Lieutenant-General Panradom Pattanathabur, Secretary general of Thailand's National Security Council, and Utaz Hassan Taib, who was identified as the chief of the BRN liaison office in Malaysia. The document was signed on Feb. 28 and was heralded as a historical agreement in the effort to end Thailand's bitter eight-year-old insurgency, which has taken as nearly 4,000 lives in the four southern provinces along the porous, deeply jungled border with Malaysia.

The Barisan Revolusi Nasional was formed in 1963. Although it may one of the largest groups involved in the insugency, as Asia Sentinel reported was questionable at the start if any others would come aboard. The biggest of the revolutionary groups is the Pattani United Liberation Organization, known as PULO. It does not appear to be a party to the negotiations. Other major combatants are the Mujahideen Pattani Movement, the Pattani Islamic Mujahideen Movement, the Pattani Liberation National Front and the Mujahideen Islamic Pattani Group.

None of the groups took credit for the Narathiwat bombings. Defense and intelligence sources said they were carried out independently and were regarded as a demonstration that the agreement reached in Malaysia were in effect irrelevant to the separatist cause that has wracked the region.

The first bomb, hidden in a stolen motorcycle parked near a market in Muang municipality, injured six people and one vehicle and six motorcycles. Bomb experts said the device was detonated by a digital wristwatch rather than a cellphone. The motorcycle was parked behind a military vehicle that was operating a mobile phone jamming device to guard against such attacks. The second bomb was much bigger, comprising 50 kg of explosive parked in a pickup truck and parked in front of the provincial police command post. There were no casualties but shophouses and vehicles were damaged.

With an election nearing, the Malaysian government wants peace along the border and there are actually great trade advantages to a peaceful south. The military and police are generally cooperative with the Thai authorities over border security issues and have established good relationships. However some insurgents are also Malaysian citizens, or at least have very close Malaysian relatives, and to some degree are integrated within the "pondok communities" within Kelantan.

This is not the first time peace talks have been attempted with many different moderators including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed in talks in Langkawi talks a few years ago, and later with former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Both went nowhere. In the meantime, violence has continued to escalate as the insurgents have operated with seeming impunity. Deep South Watch announced in February 2012 that 33 people had been killed and 55 injured as a result of clashes without a single insurgent death. In March, at least 50 militants attacked a Yala Province military base, kidnaping two officers who were later found shot to death.

The Thai military has been accused by human rights organizations of responding by beating and torturing suspected insurgents. In one horrific 2004 incident in Tak Bai, soldiers rounded up hundreds of young men demonstrating against the government, tied their hands behind their backs and loaded them into trucks to transport them to detention centers. They were so crowded that 78 suffocated and died.

Of late, the insurgents have undertaken many embarrassing ploys like displaying Malaysian flags on Aug. 31, Malaysia's Independence day. Thai government troops and other security forces have been tied down trying to protect major towns like Hat Yai and Chana from attacks At least 18 insurgents were killed during an attack on a military base in Narathiwat just two weeks ago. The attacks have featured beheadings, bombings, killing of schoolteachers and other violence. So far, the conflict since 2004 has resulted in some 3,380 deaths, including 2,316 civilians, 372 troops, 278 police, 250 suspected insurgents, 157 education officials and seven Buddhist monks according to data from Thailand's Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center.

Given the latest attacks, the immediate level of violence may indicate how seriously various groups look at the upcoming process of negotiation. The Yingluck government has given some authority to the military to negotiate, who may take a more hardline than the government would. However from the Thai point of view some process is going on which is better than no process at all.

The agreement for Malaysia to moderate remains a redeeming event in foreign policy for the Najib government, which will be hoping the events may provide some positive mileage among the rural Malays of Kelantan, who they need to win over if any positive electoral. But as the bombings - and the failure of previous negotiations - may indicate, the violence-scarred people of Thailand's deep south have little scope for optimism.