Ominous Thai Bombing in Tourism Heart Continues to Make Waves

Speculation has been rife ever since the April 10 car bombing on Koh Samui on the eve of Thailand’s annual Songkran Festival over who did it and why. The island, off the coast of southern Thailand’s Surat Thani province, is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations.

For Thai authorities, the cast of suspects has included the Red-Shirt United Front for Democracy (UDD), former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his former deputy prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. They have also looked at insurgents and politicians from the conflict-ridden Malay-Muslim far south and also local gangsters. There are also conspiracy theories that point toward the Royal Thai Army and former local Democrat Party MP Suthep Thaugsuban, who led the pro-royalist Bangkok streets protests against the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, in late 2013 and early 2014.

But no matter who was behind it, the first car bombing in a mega-tourist spot such as Koh Samui is ominous. Insurgents tied to the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the main Malay Muslim separatist organization in the south, have on occasion bombed Hat Yai, southern Thailand’s largest city, but had never hit major tourist destinations.

Thailand’s tourism sector is the fourth-largest contributor to gross domestic product, attracting 24.78 million visitors, off 6.6 percent, in 2014. Arrivals actually fell by 10.28 percent in the first three quarters, only recovering after political chaos subsided after the May coup removed Yingluck.

Authorities initially linked the incident, which left six Thais and an Italian girl slightly injured, to the longstanding adversaries of the Thai royalist establishment, the UDD Red Shirts, who by and large support Thaksin-aligned political parties.

But authorities quickly backed off those initial attempts to pin the incident, which took place at an underground parking garage at 10:30 at night, on the Red Shirts. The morning after, authorities revealed that the pickup truck used in the bombing came from Yaha district, a hotbed of Malay Muslim insurgent activity in Yala province.

Bombers for hire?

Although Thai authorities now believe insurgents carried out the bombing, they have downplayed the notion that they were inspired by the BRN-led movement’s grand goal of some form of self-determination. Authorities say the insurgents were hired by people from outside the region.

That is plausible because some insurgents have been known to serve as guns for hire for nefarious interest groups including those tied to drugs and oil smuggling. Malay Muslim politicians, moreover, have links to both insurgents and political elites on both sides of Thailand’s bitter national divide.

Over the past decade, there have even widespread allegations by Muslims and even some local Thai Buddhists that army officials have hired insurgents to carry out bombings in order to justify hefty budgets allotted to Thai security to control the violence-affected region.

Some now suspect that army figures could have hired insurgents to justify its imposition of the draconian Article 44, which in early April replaced martial law, which was introduced just prior to the May 2014 coup led by current premier General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Both laws have been criticized for giving the junta government unlimited power. However, a wide range of sources who spoke with Asia Sentinel largely ruled out the possibility that the army-led government was involved in the Samui bombing.

There has been some speculation that local feuds may be tied to the incident. One source explained that in recent months the police and army have cracked down on mafia not aligned with Suthep, the most influential political figure in Surat Thani. This allegedly frustrated and angered some groups, and possibly led them to hire insurgents to carry out the bombings, a source surmised.

Thai authorities have zeroed in on government opponents, however. National police chief Somyot Pumpanmuang told reporters southern politicians were behind the attack. Earlier, Suthep claimed that someone living abroad was behind the attack, a veiled reference to Thaksin, who has been living in self-exile since fleeing the country on abuse of power charges in 2008.

Some are now speculating that Thaksin and Chavalit collaborated with some Malay Muslim politicians from the once-powerful faction of politicians known as Wadah. Wadah politicians have been generally aligned with Chavalit and Thaksin-backed parties over the past 20 years, and the pickup truck used in the bombing was used by a driver for a Subdistrict Administrative Organization allegedly under the influence of a former Malay Muslim politician from Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party.

In 2004, when violence erupted in the south, known as Patani to most of its Malay Muslim population, there were allegations that Wadah politicians Den Tohmeena, Ariphen Utarasint and Natjumuddin Umar were the masterminds of a raid on an army camp in January 2004. Ever since, authorities have backed off claims that these and other Wadah figures comprise part of BRN’s clandestine leadership, but whisperings that at least some of these former politicians have some role in the splintered liberation movement remain. That would possibly suggest that even if Wadah politicians were involved, it remains distinctly possible that they ordered the bombing for the sake of the separatist movement, not for Thaksin or his supporters.

Yet, both Thaksin-aligned actors and Malay Muslim politicians share an interest in wanting a civilian-led government to exercise some authority over the traditional establishment, including the army and the Democrat Party. While some Red Shirts and Thaksin supporters quietly back a change from a constitutional monarchy to a federalist state, Malay Muslim politicians hope that a civilian-led government can eventually offer some kind of regional autonomy. Malay Muslim support for Yingluck and Thaksin has escalated in recent years in part because of the Yingluck government’s openness to offering concessions to the minority region.

Reds and Malay Muslims’ mutual animosity towards the Democrat Party runs so deep that some believe Suthep himself had a role in the bombing. Around the same time as the bombing, a cooperative owned by Suthep was burned down in Surat Thani. Some hardline opponents of Suthep suspect that he himself was behind this incident in an effort to collect insurance money while at the same time pinning the incident to his national and regional political enemies. They also wonder how insurgents could have pulled off the bombing without some kind of assistance from local authorities, who are under the influence of Suthep, they claim.

What’s more, Suthep and other MPs from the Democrat Party, which totally dominates politics in the upper south, have long been alleged to have ties to figures with connections to Muslim insurgents. There have even been allegations in the past that Democrat Party politicians have hired less ideologically-inspired insurgents to carry out violence. Moreover, some in the Malay Muslim community believe that the January 2004 raid of the army camp, regarded as the starting point of the current phase of insurgency, was actually carried out by rogue security forces connected to Suthep. Like the Samui bombing, they believe that Wadah figures were made scapegoats.

BRN interests

In spite of the credible allegations that insurgents collaborated with Thaksin, or even Suthep, it is also plausible that BRN acted alone. Over the past two years, and especially in recent months, there have been warnings that insurgents could expand violence to other areas in order to bolster their bargaining leverage with the Thai state.

Even some security officials who spoke with Asia Sentinel acknowledged that the bombing may have been carried out at least in part for the goals of the Malay Muslim separatist movement. Some surmised that the bombing was a signal to the current Thai government that at least a faction of the movement is unwilling to engage in dialogue with a government that acquired its power via coup. Over the past year, sources have claimed that BRN has been reluctant to enter dialogue because of the junta’s staunch unwillingness to shift towards a process that could lead towards such key concessions as some kind of autonomy, amnesties for insurgents, and recognition that the region was colonized by Siam, present-day Thailand.

Some Malay Muslim sources with connections to the shadowy movement claimed that a hardline faction of BRN alone was responsible. One of these sources also emphatically claimed that BRN was responsible for two other small-scale incidents that took place in southern Thailand’s Phangna and Phuket provinces on April 11.

According to this same source, influential figures in BRN made their opposition to dialogue clear by pulling out from an umbrella outfit for the Patani movement known as Majilis Syura Patani (MARA Patani). MARA Patani initially consisted of BRN, three factions from the group Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), Barisan Islam Pembangunan Patani (BIPP), and Gerakan Mujahideen Patani (GMIP).

PULO, BIPP and GMIP have allegedly not been very involved in insurgent-related violence over the past decade, but some plugged-in sources claim that at least one faction of PULO has formed a new group of insurgents called the Patani Liberation Army (PLA). Some security officials have claimed that PLA was responsible for a May 2013 bombing in Bangkok’s Rhamkhamhaeng area, which left 7 people injured. To add to the confusion over who was behind the Samui bombing, a couple of other sources with connections to the BRN-led movement claimed that insurgents did not act alone.