This week southern Thailand has seen another bomb attack specifically targeting civilians.
Violence has gripped the three Muslim-majority provinces on the Malaysian border since 2004.
It is important to remember what happened under then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and why the region is trapped in a cycle of violence, reignited by state reprisals.
Thailand is yet to bring to justice police and military personnel responsible for the deaths of 85 protesters from Tak Bai in southern Thailand on October 25, 2004. The army and police fired on ethnic Malay Muslim protesters in the district in Narathiwat province, killing seven. Another 78 demonstrators were suffocated or crushed to death while being transported to an army base in neighbouring Pattani province. The military detained more than 1,200 people for several days without appropriate medical attention, and severely injured protesters lost limbs as a result.
A December 2004 fact-finding committee appointed under Thaksin ruled that the methods used in dispersing the protesters, including firing live ammunition and deploying army conscripts inexperienced in handling demonstrations, were inappropriate and not in line with international practices. The committee said that senior officers failed to supervise how protesters were transported into custody, leaving the task to be performed by ill-trained, low-ranking personnel. The inquiry identified three army officers who failed to properly monitor and supervise operations, leading to the deaths and injuries of protesters.
In 2009, following an inquest into the deaths, the Songkla Provincial Court ruled that the deaths were caused by suffocation, but did not elaborate on the manner of death. After a legal challenge, in 2013 the Supreme Court upheld the Songkla court’s ruling, which stated that the 78 died only from suffocation and that security personnel were blameless and had only been performing their duty.
As we have seen in conflict zones across the world, if democratic and legal proceedings fail the people, they will opt for a more extremist approach. If you do not talk to the moderates, they will not stay moderate for long.
“The Thai authorities’ failure to deliver justice to southern Muslims has fuelled conditions for the insurgency in the deep south,” Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) regional director Brad Adams said.
The violence shows no signs of ending.
Of the more than 6,800 people killed in the southern border conflict, about 90 per cent have been ethnically Thai Buddhist or Malay Muslim civilians.
International humanitarian law prohibits attacks that fail to discriminate between military personnel and civilians.
Martial law has been imposed in the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla since 2006, allowing the authorities to detain suspects without charge, censor the media, conduct searches and seize documents, meaning they can operate without any danger of prosecution.
The bombings this week by alleged separatist insurgents at the largest shopping mall in the three border provinces were clearly intended to inflict maximum civilian casualties. The two bombs at a Big C in Pattani used a “double-tap” tactic employed by southern insurgents, injuring 61 people, including children.
A small bomb at the food court inside the shopping mall caused many to run to the car park where a larger bomb hidden in a pickup truck exploded.
“The double bombing of a crowded shopping mall shows a vicious disregard for civilian lives,” said HRW’s Adams. “The Big C attack has all the hallmarks of separatist violence, attacks targeting civilians that may be crimes against humanity. The government should hold all those responsible to account.”
The pickup truck was reported stolen and the owner remains missing, presumed dead.
Attacks in the three southern provinces have intensified this year with six army rangers killed in an attack last month.
Pattani has repeatedly been hit by violence, including twin bombings in August.
Since the escalation of their armed attacks in January 2004, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) separatists have committed numerous war crimes.
The government recently rejected a conditional offer for peace talks from the BRN, which had demanded international mediation or observation.
On April 10, BRN condemned the Malaysia-brokered peace process between Bangkok and largely defunct separatist groups in the vague Mara Patani bloc.
The Thai junta is accused of talking to the wrong people if it seriously wants to stop the conflict. The generals are presumably aware that, without the BRN’s involvement, any peace process is doomed.
Analysts say that the MARA Patani representatives have no influence on the combatants and it is the BRN that controls the southern insurgents.
Although the insurgents have suffered major setbacks from security sweeps in recent years, they still maintain a presence in hundreds of ethnically Malay villages. Thailand has yet to successfully prosecute any personnel for human rights abuses committed against southern Muslims alleged to be involved in the insurgency.
On allegations of military reprisals, Adams said: “The Thai government needs to respond to these brutal attacks by upholding the rule of law, ending abuses by its own security forces and addressing long-held grievances in the ethnic-Malay-Muslim community. If the government continues to shield its troops from criminal responsibility, it will only add fuel to extremist violence.”
The junta ignores the insurgency at its peril. So-called Islamic State, we are told, is always hoping to increase its Asean operations and it might encourage the BRN to extend its attacks beyond the border provinces. Bombs in the resorts of Phuket and Samui would definitely concentrate minds in Bangkok.
Picture credit: Wikimedia