Muslim militants in south Thailand growing stronger

Four explosions rocked southern Thailand, killing 14 people in one of the biggest attacks in the eight year insurgency. The militancy remains far from tourist hot spots. 

Surapan Boonthanom/Reuters
The site of a bombing in southern Thailand's Yala province on Saturday. A string of bombings in the Muslim-dominated south killed at least eight people.

Muslim insurgents announced a deadly new departure in their long-running terror campaign in southern Thailand, with four explosions killing 14 people and injuring more than 300 on Saturday.

Just before noon on Saturday, a truck bomb went off in the middle of a busy shopping and restaurant area of Yala, a town of 75,000 people in Thailand's south. Around 20 minutes later, as rescue workers convened and members of the public looked on, a second blast went off in the same area. Elsewhere in southern Thailand, in Hat Yai, a popular hotel was targetted, with a Malaysian tourist among the dead from a blast there, while insurgents also set off a motorcycle explosion at a police checkpoint in Pattani province.

The attacks resulted in one of the worst death tolls in the history of the eight year insurgency in the region, which has claimed more than 5,000 lives since 2004. Ethnic Malay Muslim insurgents in Thailand's southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala are thought to be seeking greater autonomy for their region bordering Malaysia to the south, though they have not to date stated their precise political aims.

"It is a significant escalation in terms of the scale of the attacks, with three car bombs and one motorcycle bomb in one operation. That has never happened before. It is also an escalation in that both in Yala and Hat Yai it was a pretty ruthless targetting of civilians on a busy Saturday afternoon," says Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst with IHS-Janes.

Thailand, then known as Siam, annexed the southern area in the early 20th century. Since then, many ethnic Malay Muslims in the area have complained of discrimination by the country's Thai-speaking, mainly Buddhist ruling elites.

State of emergency

Last October, the Thai government named a new head of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC), the administrative unit set up in 2010 to help govern the restive south. However, the appointment of former policeman Thawee Sodsong does not appear to have dulled the ire of the insurgents. A state of emergency has been in place in the region since 2005, leading to complaints of heavy-handedness there, and perhaps undermining government overtures to Thailand's Malay Muslims.

The attacks come two weeks ahead of Thailand's water festival, known asSongkran, a major annual public holiday. And with tourism making up around 6 percent of the country's $345 billion economy, deadly attacks such as Saturday's could cut into Thailand's recovery from the 2011 floods, which cost the country an estimated $40 billion.

To date, the insurgents have not carried out attacks in the capital Bangkok or on Thailand's main tourist resorts or beaches. Famous destinations like Phuket and Ko Lanta are hundreds of miles north of the unrest. Seeking to reassure visitors, acting Thai government spokesperson Nalinee Taveesin told the Monitor on Sunday that “things are being handled very properly and we are on top of things. We would like to assure people planning to come to Thailand that this is very specific to one area.”

Insurgency growing stronger

In the past, the insurgents typically carried-out smaller scale attacks, such as drive-by shootings. But now, according to Mr. Davis, a researcher who specializes in the Thai south, the insurgents are well-placed to carry out deadlier violence.

"Overall, the insurgency is getting more serious with a marked improvement in insurgent capabilities over the past 12 to 18 months. They successfully regrouped following the government's counter-insurgency campaign of 2007-2008 and are now hitting harder than at any time in the past," he says.

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