Commentary / World

Thai military junta playing a dangerous blame game

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Four days after the referendum on the military-initiated constitution, Thailand’s major tourist destinations in the south fell prey to coordinated bombings and arson attacks. On Aug. 11 and 12, seven southern provinces, including well-known holiday havens like Phuket and Phang-nga, became targets of terrorism. On Aug. 23, twin blasts took place in front of a hotel in the southern town of Pattani. The deadly blasts were caused by car bombs.

The latest acts of terrorism killed five people and injured 77 others, becoming ones of the most serious terrorist attacks since the eruption of a separatist insurgency 12 years ago. The proximate timing between the referendum and the attacks conveniently allowed the military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to exploit the tragedy to undermine political opponents.

Immediately after the incidents, apologists for the junta condemned both former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters in the Red Shirt camp for masterminding the terrorist attacks. They claimed that the public approval of the constitution through the referendum immensely upset the Thaksin faction. To retaliate, Thaksin, allegedly, instigated coordinated attacks to discredit the junta. Denying the allegation, Thaksin filed defamatory charges against those accusing him of being behind the unlawful incidents.

The condemnation against Thaksin unveiled the junta’s strategy to explain away the devastating attacks by portraying them as a domestic political crisis. The strategy served several purposes for the junta in terms of assigning culpability to internal political enemies to evade responsibility while dismissing any links between local insurgents and international terrorist networks.

In 2004, Thailand witnessed the resurgence of a century-old separatist problem in the south. Under the Thaksin administration, the authorities adopted tough measures in dealing with Muslim separatists, intensifying a sense of discontentment against the Thai state. Since then, almost 6,000 people have been executed and 10,000 injured in the seemingly never-ending attacks that included drive-by shootings, bombings and beheadings.

The Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, also known as BRN, is a major separatist group operating in the Muslims-majority southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. The causes of grievances range from economic deprivation, social alienation and a lack of access to political resources. Although successive Thai governments have in recent years adjusted their attitudes and implemented new policies to create more economic and social opportunities for the Muslim population, the conflict has never subsided.

It is true that insurgent attacks are normally limited to the three provinces. It is also true that the BRN has never claimed responsibility for the violence. But the preliminary investigations of the police into the current cases seem to suggest the direct involvement of the BRN in the attacks.

Matt Wheeler from the International Crisis Group argued that the latest bombings bore the hallmarks of operations by the BRN. The attackers deployed two or more improvised explosive devices timed to detonate in sequence. The devices were small, and although lethal, were not designed or deployed to cause mass casualties. Despite the pattern of attacks being consistent with BRN operations, the Thai junta continues to divert public attention away from the southern insurgents.

The blame placed on the Thaksin faction might have fulfilled a short-term goal of the junta in preventing proxies of Thaksin from returning to power in the post-election period. But the lack of evidence has in turn damaged the credibility of the junta itself.

For too long, Thai governments have been preoccupied with politics in Bangkok. Since the military took power in a coup in May 2014, some hoped that the army would seriously strive to find a breakthrough in the southern conflict. But the blame game and the politicization of the attacks are testament to the junta’s insincerity in seeking solutions to the separatist movement.

For one thing, the military government became overwhelmingly concerned about the impact of the terrorist attacks on the tourism industry. It has already been blamed for the economic downturn. The attacks in tourist destinations are likely to deal a major blow to the economy and explains the junta’s desire to minimize their impact.

Accordingly, the government chose to use certain discourses to clarify the attacks. It used terms such as “individual figures” or “influential personalities” to describe the culprits, again to limit any connection with international terrorist groups. In fact, the media has been warned not to call the attacks “terrorist acts.” Instead, journalists were advised to report the attacks as sabotage, not terrorism.

However, explicating the attacks purely in a domestic political context will leave Thailand more vulnerable to future terrorist strikes. In August last year, a bomb exploded at a busy Hindu shrine in Bangkok, killing 20 people. Although initially Thaksin was again impugned for the attack, it has become more obvious that Muslim Uighurs might have been responsible. Earlier the Prayuth government made a controversial decision to deport 109 Uighur asylum seekers to China despite the likelihood that they will be prosecuted by the Chinese government. The Thai government is still unable to resolve the case because it has ignored the international elements behind the bombing.

There is a danger in intentionally misinterpreting the recent attacks. It may permit insurgent networks to grow and continue to solicit Bangkok’s attention through deadly attacks. In so doing, not only is the military government deepening the wounds in the domestic conflict, it is amplifying the rebellion in the south, consciously or otherwise.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

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