Suspected insurgents in Thailand have launched multiple attacks in the kingdom’s predominantly Malay Muslim southernmost region as well as an adjoining province, signaling a possible escalation in violence ahead of February 24 general elections.

Insurgent attacks led by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) group had died down under four years of tough military rule. But the recent wave of violence serves as a message to the next government that the separatist movement in the borderland region maintains the capacity to stir unrest.

On December 27, simultaneous bombings were detonated in a beachside area of Songkhla town, with one of the explosions damaging the iconic Golden Mermaid statue situated near the famous BP Samila Beach Hotel and beachside restaurants.

Southern Thailand is world renowned for its Western tourist-attracting tropical beaches, though Songkhla town and Samila Beach attract far fewer foreign tourists compared to provinces in the country’s upper south such as Phuket and Krabi.

On the same night of those attacks, two bombs damaged two high-voltage power poles in the district of Khuan Niang, which borders on Phattalung province, just north of Songkhla.

Thai police inspect a hole in the wall following a bomb attack at a civilian volunteer base by suspected separatists the night before, in the Rangae district in the southern province of Narathiwat on December 29, 2018. - Thailand's Muslim-majority "deep south" region saw a spike in coordinated bomb and grenade attacks by suspected insurgents against the military and police in the lead-up to the new year, an official said on December 29. (Photo by Madaree TOHLALA / AFP)
Thai police inspect a bomb attack site at a civilian volunteer base by suspected separatists the night before in the Rangae district of Narathiwat province, December 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

Four more bombs were discovered attached to power poles in Bang Klam district, which borders Hat Yai, southern Thailand’s largest city, though bomb disposal officers were able to neutralize the devices.

Multiple incidents also took place across Narathiwat, one of the three predominantly Malay Muslim provinces consistently hit by violence since 2004, damaging power poles and injuring several people, including three rangers in a roadside bombing.

On December 25, gunmen also attacked a police vehicle in the same province’s Bacho district, leaving one officer dead and five others injured.

In one of the Narathiwat incidents, insurgents seized a health promotion hospital in Rangae district to launch attacks on a civilian defense volunteer base but no one was injured. In May 2016, insurgents similarly took over the district hospital in nearby Choi Ai Rong to launch attacks on an army post.

One army source claims that the same insurgent group behind the Choi Ai Rong incident was behind some of last week’s attacks in Narathiwat.

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One individual suspected of being involved in the 2016 Choi Ai Rong attack was Arsu Who-ngoi, who was convicted for his role in a March 2017 attack on police in front of the Rangae district police station.

On December 6, Arsu died of tuberculosis at Narathiwat Hospital after developing the disease in prison. His family alleged that a nurse explained to them that she did not know why a respirator fell from his face, resulting in his death.

Insurgents typically launch retaliatory attacks for alleged state abuses against their members.

The Songkhla town bombings marked the first time insurgents have targeted the seaside town since April 2005, a period when insurgents were less skilled in their bombing techniques and far more indiscriminate in their attacks that often injured or killed civilians.

Then, insurgents placed a bomb inside a motorcycle just outside Songkhla’s Green Plaza Hotel. Although that incident did not cause any deaths or injuries, insurgents launched nearly simultaneous bombings at the Hat Yai airport and a supermarket that left one dead and dozens seriously wounded.

Hat Yai, roughly 30 kilometers from Songkhla town, has been bombed multiple times by insurgents. In the most violent incident, in 2012, they bombed the popular Lee Gardens Plaza Hotel and shopping center, leaving some 13 civilians dead and 300 injured.

Hat Yai has not been bombed over the course of General Prayut Chan-ocha’s coup-installed junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order. Indeed, the rebel movement has scaled back attacks during his four and half years of hardline rule.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha presiding over a mass pledge of allegiance to the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a ceremony at Government House in Bangkok. Photo: AFP/ Thai Royal Bureau
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha during a ceremony at Government House in Bangkok. Photo: AFP/ Thai Royal Bureau

The day after the recent Songkhla attacks, Deputy Prime Minister and junta No 2 Prawit Wongsuwan said that though insurgents were likely the perpetrators, the motive for the violence may have involved local politics.

Prawit visited Songkhla the same day as the incidents to distribute land title deeds to people in five southernmost provinces, including the three border ones mainly impacted by violence – Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.

Later, following the spate of attacks in Narathiwat, Fourth Army chief Pornsak Surasak said that there may have been a third party behind the recent attacks without elaborating.

It is not entirely uncommon for insurgents tied to the BRN-led separatist movement to be hired out by other groups or individuals, including ethnic Thais who do not share their separatist ambitions but in some circumstances may have an interest in stirring unrest.

That was likely the case for the most significant wave of incidents in recent years, the Mother’s Day weekend bombings in August 2016 in which insurgents launched attacks across seven provinces in Thailand’s upper south, killing four people and injuring many others, including foreigners.

The potential for collaboration between insurgents and politicians, as well as other vested interest groups, may rise in the context of revitalized democratic politics ahead of February’s national election.

Thai security personnel guard an area following a bomb attack at a civilian volunteer base by suspected separatists the night before, in the Rangae district in the southern province of Narathiwat on December 29, 2018. - Thailand's Muslim-majority "deep south" region saw a spike in coordinated bomb and grenade attacks by suspected insurgents against the military and police in the lead-up to the new year, an official said on December 29. (Photo by Madaree TOHLALA / AFP)
Thai security personnel guard an area following a bomb attack at a civilian volunteer base by suspected separatists in the Rangae district in Narathiwat province, December 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala 

Unlike the upper south, where the Democrat Party will likely continue to dominate at the upcoming polls, the so-called Deep South region will likely be hotly contested between pro-military and pro-democracy parties.

However, sources in the region who spoke with Asia Times believe that BRN acted on its own accord in the recent incidents to show that it still has the capacity to destabilize the region through waves of shadowy violence.

The Songkhla town bombings may have also served as an attack on the country’s royalist establishment. The town is the birthplace of 98-year-old Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, who is widely revered in Songkhla, and is also part of the Democrat Party’s heartland.

Separatists tend to harbor resentment towards both Prem and the Democrat Party, as they formed a faction of the country’s old establishment during the prestigious reign of King Bhumipol Adulyadej, who passed away in October 2016.

The old establishment, including the military and bureaucracy, have generally been recalcitrant to grant the ethno-religious minority region any form of autonomous governance.

Nationalist activists and others familiar with BRN’s thinking, including soldiers based in the region, have long suggested that the BRN-led separatist movement is loath to deal with Prayut’s hardline junta and would prefer to negotiate with an elected government.

“They don’t want to negotiate with the military,” one anonymous official said.

This picture taken on January 1, 2019 shows residents attending a protest against violence in the Rangae district in the southern province of Narathiwat, after a bomb attack at a civilian volunteer base by suspected separatists on December 28, 2018. - Thailand's Muslim-majority "deep south" region bordering Malaysia has been in the grip of a low-level but bloody insurgency for more than a decade as ethnic Malay militants battle the Buddhist-majority state for greater autonomy. (Photo by Madaree TOHLALA / AFP)
Thais protest against violence in the Rangae district in the province of Narathiwat after a bomb attack at a civilian volunteer base by suspected separatists on December 28, 2018. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

The junta has dragged its feet on a dialogue process that brings together a coalition of separatist groups and Thai state representatives. Recently, though, Thailand and Malaysia, the latter a facilitator in the process, have changed their dialogue leadership to reinvigorate the moribund process.

After Mahathir Mohammad rose to power in Malaysia’s May 2018 elections, the veteran politician assigned Abdul Rahim Noor as facilitator to the dialogue between a coalition of separatist groups and the Thai state.

At the time, a range of sources in the region anticipated that Mahathir would apply a firmer hand on separatists who use Malaysia as a sanctuary than his predecessor, ex-premier Najib Razak.

More recently, Malaysian security officials have pressured alleged BRN leader Abdullah Wan Muhammad Nor and other BRN leaders who, like Abdullah, are believed to exercise a degree of authority over insurgents on the ground.

The Thais are known to be pressing their Malaysian counterparts to deliver BRN hardliners to the table. Newly appointed head of Thailand’s dialogue team, former Fourth Army chief General Udomchai Thammasarorat, reportedly aims to have a peace deal in place within six months, according to a source familiar with the Thai side’s thinking.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha (R) applauds as his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad smiles speaks during a joint press conference at the Government House in Bangkok on October 24, 2018. - Malaysia's new leader Mahathir Mohamad met his Thai counterpart on October 24  in his first visit to his northern neighbour as hopes rise that he can help prospects for peace in Thailand's violence-scarred south. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha (R) applauds as his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a joint press conference at the Government House in Bangkok, October 24, 2018.  Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

However, history shows that kind of pressure can backfire. The 2012 Lee Gardens bombings in Hat Yai were reputedly detonated in response to BRN being pressed by Malaysia and Thaksin Shinawatra, the de facto head of his sister Yingluck’s Peua Thai-led government despite living in self-exile.

In an apparent effort to pave the way for Yingluck’s government’s peace initiatives, Thaksin reportedly bid to apologize to separatist leaders in Malaysia for his government’s hardline tack in the early years of the current phase of the decades-old insurgency.

In spite of the Tak Bai and Kru Se Mosque massacres that took place under Thaksin’s watch in 2004, Yingluck’s administration garnered relative support from the ethno-religious nationalist movement for her willingness to address long-standing grievances of Malay Muslims and the rebel movement.

Her government’s peace initiatives, highlighted by a dialogue process that introduced Malaysia as formal facilitator in 2013, were hamstrung by the politically more powerful old establishment, including the then Prayut-led military.

Even if the upcoming election installs a new elected government that is relatively open to dialogue and some form of democratic regional governance, it’s not clear it will have enough power to overcome still-strong military and bureaucracy resistance to any such move.