Attack on mainly Muslim shoppers may have been launched by rogue BRN militants, even as their handlers’ express willingness to talk peace
Within hours of Tuesday’s bomb attack at a Big C supermarket in Pattani, Thai security officials were pointing the finger of blame at Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the longstanding separatist movement that controls virtually all the insurgent combatants.
Twenty-four hours later, authorities announced they had identified the four culprits but would not make their names public.
Photos and video were released of the stolen pickup loaded with a homemade bomb as it passed through the store’s security checkpoint.
Tinted windows that disguised the assailants’ faces were lowered just far enough to hand over an identification card, which belonged to the owner of the stolen vehicle, whose body was later found in a village in Pattani.
The security guard apparently didn’t bother to check if the face of the driver matched the photo ID. As at most security checkpoints in Thailand, it was a case of going through the motions and waving the customer through.
The two attackers transporting the bomb made it through with ease. Waiting for them on getaway motorbikes nearby were two accomplices.
Despite the forest of checkpoints and security cameras across this conflict-affected region, where an ongoing insurgency has claimed nearly 7,000 lives since January 2004, insurgents continue to evade detection by security officials and their network of informants.
For the past 13 years, this has been a cat-and-mouse game for the Thai security apparatus. Preventive measures and the security grid have failed to curb hit-and-run attacks against patrols and remote military and police outposts. Soldiers patrolling back roads are sitting ducks for militants manning detonators, with weapons locked and loaded to finish off casualties from the blast.
Many of the soldiers are young and sent to this historically contested region with little understanding of the conflict’s nature. They find themselves up against “ghosts” – no state official really knows who is an active insurgent – but also an entire Patani Malay community that is indifferent to the government’s counter-insurgency operation and wider plan for the region.
The authorities are quick to blame separatists for almost every violent incident. For the local Malays, however, it is clear that pro-government death squads are also part of the picture. When a group of armed men jump out of a pickup and start firing into a teashop full of Muslim villagers, it is difficult to reach any other conclusion.
On the other hand, coordinated and simultaneous attacks, roadside bombings, and ambushes against security units are generally understood to be the work of insurgents. News travels fast in this restive region. Yesterday’s incident is chewed over at breakfast the next morning in village teashops. “Were the victims goats or pigs?” is usually the first question as the men sip tea and eat roti. “Goats” means Malay Muslims while “pigs” refers to Thai Buddhists.
But on Tuesday in Pattani, the “goat and pig” distinction got all mixed up as both Malays and Thai Buddhists lay injured outside Big C waiting to be treated by paramedics.
More than meets the eye
A government spokesman wasted no time in lashing out at separatist militants. But senior officials monitoring the situation closely were scratching their heads over why the BRN would launch an attack against the people they are supposed to be “liberating”. Nothing is being ruled out, including the possibility of an attack by a rogue unit upset with BRN leadership for stating their willingness to negotiate with the Thai state last month.
Evidence from many attacks prior to Tuesday’s bombing suggests insurgents had not been targeting civilians. The raid on a Narathiwat district hospital last year saw 30-plus insurgents evacuate the building of medical staff before using it as a staging ground to assault the Paramilitary Ranger camp next door. Buddhist doctors and nurses even told reporters how polite the insurgents were.
In other incidents, innocent bystanders have been killed by insurgents’ stray bullets, though Thai authorities don’t make a distinction between such accidental killings and murder. In their eagerness to demonise the insurgents, they purposely leave out certain facts. In doing so, they also undermine their own analysis and credibility.
Insurgent sources in the South say they don’t believe anybody in their movement could have carried out Tuesday’s attack, given the fact that most shoppers at the supermarket were Muslims. However, the fluidity of the BRN command-and-control structure means that each cell is given freedom to decide which targets to hit. And given such leeway there is naturally a tendency to escalate the intensity and scale of the violence.
Attack on peace process?
One senior Thai security officer suggests the Big C bombing could be the latest in a wave of attacks avenging the extrajudicial killings of two militant suspects on March 29 by Rangers.
Sources in the BRN said the April attacks were also aimed at discrediting the ongoing peace dialogue between the government and MARA Patani, an umbrella organisation of several longstanding separatist movements.
It’s an open secret that MARA Patani and the BRN are competing to strengthen their constituencies – winning over combatants, as well as civil society organisations and community leaders in the region, to further their cause and agenda.
One advantage that MARA Patani has over others lies in its inclusion in the peace dialogue – the quasi-official track with the Thai state that is being facilitated by Malaysia.
The BRN insisted last month that it was the legitimate dialogue partner for talks with the Thais but that other foreign governments must also be involved as facilitator-observers.
Hope in BRN statement
Needless to say, the BRN statement generated a great deal of interest at all levels of Thai officialdom. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha didn’t shoot the idea down but instead suggested that the BRN talk to the facilitator, Malaysia.
But for Thai soldiers in the far South, the statement was a welcome one.
“It would be great to be able to talk to somebody who has command and control [over the insurgents],” said one Thai army intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
When asked if he thought Bangkok was prepared to make meaningful concessions to the BRN or the Malays in the far South, he replied, “Probably not. But at least it’s an opportunity to go over issues that are within our reach and to exchange ‘pigs’ and ‘cats’,” said the officer, using the Thai expression for horse-trading.
“We can go over things like rules of engagement, and use the meeting to verify which side was responsible for this or that particular incident. After all, there are many competing actors who have no qualms about using violence to get what they want in this region.”
Don Pathan is a security analyst and freelance consultant based in the far South and a member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com), a civil society organisation promoting critical discussion on the conflict in the far South.
Source – TheNation