Wednesday 18 September 2019

Muslim separatists launch wave of bomb attacks in Thailand

Surapan Boonthanom

SUSPECTED Muslim separatists launched a wave of bomb attacks in Thailand's south on Friday in a rare show of coordination in a usually low-level insurgency in the predominantly Buddhist country.

Police say "bomb-like" devices were found in at least 60 locations in Narathiwat and Pattani, two of three mainly Muslim provinces bordering mainly Muslim Malaysia, along with scores of Malaysian flags.

Most of the devices were fake, but at least a dozen exploded and wounded two soldiers.

A shadowy separatist insurgency by ethnic Malays resurfaced in January 2004, after simmering for decades. Since then, 5,206 people have been killed and 9,137 wounded, according to Deep South Watch, an organisation that monitors the violence.

The placing of the flags with the devices was aimed at souring relations between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, an analyst and a security official said.

"The operation was designed as a show of solidarity with Malaysia, which will have a secondary effect of straining relations between Thailand and Malaysia," said Anthony Davis, an analyst at IHS-Jane's, a global security consulting firm.

The coordination and scale of Friday's action were "extremely rare" and intended as a rebuttal of the government's handling of the eight-year conflict, said Srisompop Jitpiromsri of Deep South Watch, who is also a lecturer at Prince of Songkla University in Pattani.

Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat have seen almost daily gun fights and bomb attacks since January 2004. The three provinces were once part of an independent Malay Muslim sultanate until annexed by Thailand in 1909.

The placing of Malaysian flags was intended to antagonise the Thai government and cause friction with Malaysia, Pramote Prom-in, an official at the Southern Internal Security Operations Command told a news conference in Narathiwat.

He asked authorities to be vigilant and said the attacks would not affect Thai-Malaysian relations.

The attacks came on the anniversary of Malaysia's independence from British rule.

Leaked television footage of a fatal roadside ambush by militants on four Thai soldiers a month ago triggered widespread public scrutiny of the government's handling of the long-neglected south.

The government had ruled out peace talks but the government had a change of heart and said this month talks were under way.

Successive governments have spent more than 160 billion baht ($5 billion) over the past eight years to quell the violence.

The use of the Malaysian flags should not be taken as signalling the insurgents' wish to be part of Malaysia, said Davis.

"They're reiterating their own need for independence," he said.

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