Thailand’s Terrorism Problem

Bombings in Southern Thailand on Saturday killed thirteen people and wounded over 300 in the cities of Yala and Hat Yai. The series of explosions targeted civilians in popular shopping districts, a McDonalds restaurant, and a tourist hotel.

These bombings follow close on the heels of February’s much less destructive but widely reported Bangkok bombings, which were likely orchestrated by Iranian nationals.

Thailand’s security apparatus is focusing on a Muslim separatist movement in south Thailand as a potentially responsible in this weekends attack.  According to the Bangkok Post, a suspect has been tenuously identified in Saturday’s bombings in Yala and Hat Yai.  No arrests have been made as of this writing, and yet more car bombings are feared to be in the works in the busy tourist town of Hat Yai, which will host the popular Songkran water festival in only a few days.

Thailand’s Muslim separatists are relatively little-known on the world stage. They operate in the nation’s Southernmost provinces near the Malaysian border and have been actively angling for independence from Buddhist Northern Thailand since the region’s annexation in 1902, promoting violence that has killed over 5000 since a 2004 escalation in insurgent action. Although Thailand is assumed to be an overwhelmingly Theravada Buddhist nation, things in this Southeast Asian nation aren’t nearly as religiously homogenous as they may seem. The Thai’s 1902 annexation of the at-the-time independent sultanate of Patani (which formerly encompassed Thailand’s current Southernmost provinces) brought a relatively large population of ethnically and culturally distinct Malay Muslims into the national fold, whether they liked it or not. 

Separatist feelings have simmered in the local population due to large cultural, ethnic, and religious rifts between the Malay Muslim minority and the Thai Buddhist majority. Muslim’s have complained of human rights abuses perpetuated by the Thai government, including disappearances and extrajudicial killings, poor socio-economic conditions with little opportunity for advancement, and ineffectual policies that have largely failed to help Malay Muslims assimilate.

The contentious reign of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, beginning in 2001, didn’t help matters either: many believe that his aggressive response to the separatist movement only spurred Southern Muslims into yet more intense action, resulting in a January 2004 flareup in violence in the South that shows little sign of weakening. A state of emergency has existed in the region since 2005, giving police special special powers of arrest and detention. But these relatively sweeping police powers appear to have done little to curb the violence, while separatist attacks appear to only be increasing since the start of the year—and now appears to be targeting tourists.

The insurgents long-standing refusal to out themselves as specific groups or make particular demands has confounded the national government, forcing Thai national forces to strike out against a faceless and widespread adversary. Although new Thai leader Yingluck Shinawatra (the sister of Mr Thaksin) had been contemplating turning the three contentious Southern provinces into a special administrative region with a single governor, it’s safe to assume that after these latest attacks, such a lenient policy is off the table for now.

These latest attacks, which have blatantly targeted civilian foreigners, are also sparking even more concern about the future of Thailand’s lucrative tourism industry, which Ms Shinawatra recently announced could reach over $22 billion in revenue in the next five years. Although Thailand’s Southern Muslim separatists are both locally organized, focused much more on separatism than religious extremism, and are not known to have any deep connections with Islamic terrorist groups in other Muslim nations (beyond some educational exchanges) it’s unlikely that many tourists will know this— and the timing of these Southern attacks is truly horrid PR for Thailand’s active tourism lobby.

In the wake of 2010’s extremely destructive spring Red Shirt protests, 2011’s highly destructive flooding, February’s massively-reported Iranian-orchestrated bombings, and these latest March blasts, Thailand’s formerly solid reputation as a family-friendly and safe Southeast Asian destination may be eroding swiftly. If Thailand wants to keep the all-important tourist revenue coming—and, most importantly, improve the lot of its own citizens—this swiftly developing nation needs to address the problem of radical Muslim separatism quickly and with considerably greater tact than it has shown in the past.