KUALA LUMPUR: Thailand’s insurgency-plagued province of Pattani, hit by twin bombings last week that injured 61 people, is seeing signs of restlessness amongst the younger generation of separatists. And analysts warn that it could see a return to high levels of violence after years of declining attacks.
“I have been predicting an increase in violence,” Professor Zachary Abuza of National War College, Washington, DC, who has been covering the insurgency for years, told Channel NewsAsia.
“The insurgency is now in its 14th year. I think that the younger commanders are getting restless. They feel that the only thing that gets Bangkok's attention is violence,” said Abuza.
“Now that the (separatist) BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional) has transitioned to its second generation of leaders, my guess is that they are closer in line to this way of thinking,” Abuza added.
The Muslim-majority region in the south of Thailand covering the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani and parts of Songkhla, has been a violence-wracked zone for over a decade as ethnic Malay insurgents battle the Buddhist-majority state for more autonomy.
Historically, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat were part of an independent Malay Muslim sultanate before being annexed by Thailand in 1909.
The Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) is the largest and most powerful of all the insurgent groups. Its spiritual leader, Sapae-ing Basor, died in January 2017 in Malaysia.
“I think the BRN's new leadership is determined to escalate the violence… to send a clear message to the military and other rebel groups that it can escalate the violence at will,” said Mr Abuza.
“The younger field commanders have grown frustrated, and you have seen them on a few occasions hitting outside of the deep south,” he added.
Since 2004, more than 6,500 people have been killed in the violence including beheadings, bombings, drive-by shootings, assassinations and extra-judicial killings.
“In many ways since 2009, violence has plateaued. The number of casualties has fallen sharply. In mid 2007, almost three people a day were being killed, the average in 2017 is around 20 (persons) per month,” said Abuza.
“The Thai military and security services have set up check-points in the south that have made it logistically harder for the rebels to launch attacks without getting caught,” Abuza added.
Given the security measures, last week’s bombings at the busy Big C supermarket was a significant hit.
While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack where a small explosive went off followed by the detonation of a large truck bomb, analysts fingered the BRN, saying it had the capability to carry out such an attack.
So far, the government has said 10 suspects have been identified but gave little details.
“If you look at the capacity of who could do such a thing, it is of course the separatist militants under the BRN network,” Yala-based security analyst Don Pathan, told Channel NewsAsia.
“But keep in mind that there are pro-government death squads out there who sometimes take matters into their own hands. But they never attack anything at this scale. They usually attack a teashop full of Muslims but that’s once in a very long while,” said Pathan.
“If the Big C attack was actually ordered by the BRN leaders, then yes, we may be entering a period of greater instability,” Pathan added.
The patrons of the mall were mostly Muslims and it raises the question “why was it targeted.”
According to (Ms) Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, an independent analyst monitoring the southern conflict, the separatist BRN view the Big C as an economic base held by non-Muslims.
“It is most likely that the BRN views Big C, a national supermarket chain, as an economic base that is not owned by Muslims and hence considered to be on the side of the Thai state. Seven to 11 of its branches have suffered bombings many times in the South,” said Rungrawee.
“These attacks certainly show that the BRN's military strength remains strong,” said Rungrawee.
Analysts see peace talks as a way to end the violence.
However, a two-year-old peace process excludes the BRN. Instead it sees the Thai government holding talks with Mara Patani (Patani Consultative Council), an umbrella body of several southern Thailand independent groups excluding BRN.
In April, BRN said it would be willing to enter into formal peace negotiations if there was mediation by a neutral third party and the participation of international observers.
Thailand's military government rejected the conditional offer, saying peace talks were an internal matter and required no international mediation or observation.
Without BRN participating in the peace process, there is little hope of resolution to the long-running insurgency, according to analysts.
“…..because this movement (BRN) controls virtually all of the combatants on the ground,” said Pathan.
Rungrawee said the government should consider BRN’s demand for international observers as a way to resolve the conflict.
“The peace dialogue has made little progress mainly because the Thai government fears of internationalisation and wants to keep this conflict an "internal affair," said Rungrawee.
According to Abuza, the Thai government has demonstrated “no honest commitment to the peace process or any political will to address core grievances” and believes peace is a long way off.
“The peace talks are a sham. The Thai government cannot accept that the Malay, indeed they refuse to call them Malay, they call them "Thai Muslims", which is flat out inaccurate, have never assimilated, unlike every other minority group in the kingdom,” said Abuza
“The BRN is not going to come back to the table until they are up against the ropes - and I don't believe the Thai security forces will ever be able to defeat them, or is convinced that the Thai government is willing to seek a durable political solution and address core grievances,” said Abuza.
“I have no belief that this regime will countenance general amnesties, political devolution, linguistic rights, etc. I believe that the younger generation of BRN leaders feels they really need to escalate the violence; without it, the Thai government has no reason to address them (BRN),” said Abuza.