August 12, 2016 — a public holiday in Thailand which celebrates Mother’s Day and the birthday of Queen Sirikit — was marred by a series of coordinated bombings and arson attacks across southern and central Thailand, including the tourist resort island of Phuket and the royal beach resort of Hua Hin. The Mother’s Day bombings were followed just over a week later on August 23 with a double bombing in the southern provincial capital city of Pattani. The Thai military government, fearing the impact of the bombings on tourism, quickly blamed the political opposition for the Mother’s Day bombings, but it soon turned its attention to the Malay Muslim insurgents of southern Thailand, in particular the military wing of the Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front, which is known to have previously used the same types of incendiary devices and timers that were used in the Mother’s Day attacks.
While the number of casualties from the August attacks remains relatively low — 5 deaths and over 60 injured — the increased geographical range of the attacks raises questions about possible tactical changes by Thailand’s southern insurgents. As security experts note, the coordinated Mother’s Day attacks would have involved “a disciplined and experienced team of at least 30 operatives and support personnel,” highlighting the significantly increased security threat facing the military government, and especially to the vital tourism sector which accounts for 10 percent of the Thai economy. Indeed, the governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand has warned that the bombings could cost the loss of “200,000 foreign visitors and US$293 million in tourism revenue this year.” In addition, the intensified terror campaign “risks stoking militant Buddhism and sectarian conflict,” threatening to raise in Thailand the same Buddhist-Muslim ethno-religious violence plaguing neighboring Myanmar (Corben, 2016; Davis, 2016; Lim, 2015b; Murdoch, 2016; Hookway, 2016; Hookway & Watcharasakwet, 2016; “Thai police,” 2016; “Wishing you,” 2016).
While the Malay Muslim insurgency in Thailand’s southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani (as well as the districts of Chana, Na Thawi, Sabayoi, Sabao, and Thepa in Songkhla province) can be traced back to the 1960s when the separatist groups first emerged, the insurgency itself has undergone periodic episodes of escalation. The most recent resurgence, which dates from the unprecedented raid on an army camp in Narathiwat in January 2004 that saw the seizure by separatists of “more than 300 weapons, including assault rifles, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades,” has left over 6,700 dead and 12,000 injured (Chalk, 2008, pp. 5-9; Corben, 2016; “Thailand’s forgotten war,” 2016).
The violence has pushed the Buddhist population in southern Thailand into armed enclaves protected by the military, police, and even militarized Buddhist monks, with the ironic result that “as more Buddhists settle among the enclaves, Patani’s demography comes to favor Muslims in cities, towns and villages” (Jerryson, 2010, pp. 187-189; “The Insurgency,” 2015). This demographic change suits the insurgents, who resent the Thai state for attempting to assimilate the Malay Muslim population into Thai Buddhist culture, and who see the settlement of Thai Buddhists in their traditional lands as a form of internal colonialism (Domínguez, 2015).
Möller (2011) reminds us that “the region affected by the conflict today is virtually identical with the space previously occupied by the Muslim Sultanate of Patani” which “existed from the middle of the 15th century … until its incorporation into the Siamese state in the early 20th century,” and that the Malay Muslims who inhabit the region today see themselves as differentiated from the Thai Buddhist majority not just in terms of their ethnicity but also in terms of their religion and language (pp. 7-8). As Zachary Abuza, a security expert, notes, while “every other minority in Thailand has accepted assimilation for the sake of citizenship,” southern Thailand’s Malay Muslims “continue to fight against what they consider to be Thailand’s failed colonial experiment and to defend their cultural, religious and linguistic rights” (Domínguez, 2015).
Security agencies in Southeast Asia are working towards containing “the threat posed by more than 1,000 fighters from South-east Asia” who have served with IS.
The first half of 2016 saw a sudden escalation in insurgent violence, with April alone marking a sharp 46 percent increase in insurgent attacks. June 2016 — just 2 months before the Mother’s Day attacks — had 3 serious bombings that left 12 people dead. Some experts have connected this surge in violence to a court verdict in December 2015 that allowed the Thai government to seize land in Pattani that had been owned by a Malay Muslim religious school. This event significantly heightened tensions between the Malay Muslim population and the Thai state (Rajakumar, 2016a; Rajakumar, 2016b). Experts have also noted that the Mother’s Day bombings came shortly after the August 7, 2016 constitutional referendum held by the Thai military government, which was rejected by voters in the southern provinces due in large part to the Malay Muslim population’s perception of the draft charter as a vehicle for Thai Buddhist nationalism, which they recognized as a threat to their religion and culture (Abuza, 2016; Rujivanarom & Samerpop, 2016).
The Thai government has sought cooperation from their Malaysian counterparts to pursue several Mother’s Day bombing suspects who may have fled across the border into Malaysia (Holmes, 2016; “Phuket bombing suspect,” 2016). The cross-border movement of Thailand’s Malay Muslim separatists raises the possibility of infiltration into the southern Thai insurgency by Malaysian jihadists who have returned from the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. This prospect is alarming given that the Malaysian IS network has recently conducted its first successful attack on Malaysian soil — a grenade attack in late June on a nightclub. While the Malaysian police were prompted by this terrorist attack to launch a crackdown, experts warn that the IS network could continue to expand and launch further attacks across Malaysia (Jennings, 2016; “Malaysia nabs,” 2016; “Malaysian police,” 2016). The Malaysian government is aware that about 100 Malaysians are currently serving with IS’ Southeast Asian contingent in Syria and Iraq, and they have identified “at least 70 former members of the military” who have “volunteered for the Islamic State” (Ignatius, 2016). The possibility of Malaysia’s jihadist network expanding across the border into southern Thailand should not be discounted. Indeed, Rafi bin Udin, a Malaysian IS jihadist, recently called for terrorist attacks against Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries in an IS propaganda video released online in June (Ehrlich, 2016).
Thailand’s southern insurgents are known to have previously rejected overtures from global jihadist organizations like al Qaeda. While IS does not appear to have penetrated Thailand’s southern insurgent groups yet, this remains a possible threat for the future, and “Thai security agencies are cognizant of and preparing for possible IS spillover effects from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines” (Crispin, 2016; Hookway & Watcharasakwet, 2016). Indeed, while IS has been identified by regional security agencies as “expanding its operations in countries in the region, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand,” some militants from southern Thailand have also been identified as having travelled to Syria and Iraq to serve with IS (Hussain, 2015; Cochrane, 2016; Than, 2016). Significantly, social media posts from earlier this year propagated a map of southern Thailand with the black flag of IS superimposed over the contested territories, suggesting an IS-led restoration of the old Sultanate of Patani (Rajakumar, 2016b).
The seriousness of the threat posed by IS jihadists infiltrating Thailand’s southern insurgency is illustrated by the case of Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian jihadist who has been working with IS to rebuild the terrorist network in the city of Solo in central Java. Despite being physically based in IS’ Syrian capital of Raqqa, Naim has used digital tools like “social media and messaging apps” to build “an ever-more sophisticated network of militants,” with the effect that “the risk of a major attack in Indonesia is growing” (Fabi & Kapoor, 2016). Naim’s digital work is part of IS’ global outreach strategy of producing high quality digital content which “is fresh and more enticing to Sunni millennials, the primary demographic for recruitment” (Selby, 2016). In the case of southern Thailand, such outreach could create a new generation of insurgents. Already, IS recruiters have launched Al Fatihin, an online publication which has content in Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia, and which is targeted at “Malay-speaking supporters in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and southern Thailand” (“The Insurgency,” 2015; “Al Fatihin,” 2016; “ISIS online newspaper,” 2016).
Looking to the future, security agencies in Southeast Asia are working towards containing “the threat posed by more than 1,000 fighters from South-east Asia” who have served with IS, as well as “several hundred terror convicts in Indonesia whose jail terms end in the next few years.” These agencies’ proposed counterterrorism measures include “the systematic exchange of biometric information like fingerprints on known militants and terror convicts” (Soeriaatmadja & Lim, 2016). With IS having sent “hundreds of thousands of dollars to Southeast Asia to plan, prepare and execute attacks,” such regional cooperation on counterterrorism measures has become even more urgent (Ehrlich, 2016).
For Thailand, the continued or intensified insurgency in its southern provinces will endanger plans for economic investment and rehabilitation, including long-term blueprints by China to construct either a canal through the Isthmus of Kra in southern Thailand as part of its 21st Century Maritime Silk Road megaproject, or a high-speed railway running through the same region connecting the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur with Bangkok (Lim, 2015a, p. 36; “Construction of Pan-Asian,” 2015). Indeed, should Thailand’s southern insurgency intensify and become part of IS’ jihadist assault on Southeast Asia, the entire Southeast Asian region could lose the precious social and economic gains it had achieved over the past several decades. Faced with this threat, it is imperative that the security apparatuses of Southeast Asia’s nations cooperate on effective counterterrorism measures.
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