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Opinion

Anthony Davis -- Denial not an option in Thai bombing aftermath

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Police check the scene after two bomb blasts in the southern province of Surat Thani, Aug. 12, 2016.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Barely two weeks on from the wave of bombings and arson attacks that struck tourist resorts across southern Thailand, the sense of deja vu is powerful. The debris from blasts that killed four people and wounded 35 has been swept up; media commentary on the perennial resilience of Thailand's tourist economy has died down; and the online frenzy of conspiratorial "whodunnit" speculation and partisan mudslinging that invariably follows anonymous political violence has petered out.

But the swift return to "business as usual," leaving a characteristically Thai question mark over who indeed did do it, is becoming increasingly dangerous.

Objective analysis of the attacks on Aug. 11 and 12 -- bolstered by what little forensic evidence has emerged from an immediately politicized and predictably erratic police investigation -- points squarely in one direction. The bombers were not aging communist revolutionaries or antigovernment 'Red Shirts'; nor were they a rogue army faction opposed to the ruling generals of the National Council for Peace and Order; and they were certainly not Islamic State jihadists or Uighur people-smugglers, blamed for the Erawan shrine bombing which killed 20 people in 2015.

They belonged almost certainly to the only actor on Thailand's crowded stage of potential suspects with both the political interest and the operational capability to stage a carefully planned, well-coordinated wave of attacks across seven southern provinces: separatist rebels of the Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front -- better known by its Malay acronym, BRN.

Familiar tactics

The BRN has not, of course, claimed responsibility -- but then in 13 years of similar bombing and arson sprees across the Thai-Malaysian border provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala it never has. Nor has the government pointed a finger at the BRN -- but then for almost as long, it has been at pains to avoid elevating the status of ethnic Malay separatists and in particular the BRN, which dominates the insurgency. Attributing violence that has already cost over 7,000 lives to unnamed "instigators of unrest," leavened by a large dollop of local criminality, has proved to be less politically problematic.

Politics aside however, the fingerprints of the BRN's military wing were all over the bombings. Not lost on police investigators was that the type of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used in the attacks -- ammonium nitrate fuel oil-based devices reportedly with C4 booster charges packed into Baygon brand insecticide cans -- already have a history in the three provinces.

Similarly, the delayed detonation of small IEDs and incendiary devices using the alarm clock function of mobile phones, and even the specific use of Samsung Hero model phones, bear direct parallels with the group's modus operandi in recent years. And the only DNA match with an unexploded device found near the scene of one bombing in Phuket on Aug. 10 led directly back to a suspect with an insurgent record already known to the authorities.

Although the BRN has generally confined its operations to the contested border provinces, it has in the past also conducted tentative attacks further afield. While never targeted directly against tourists, these attacks have killed and injured foreigners on several occasions. Targets have included the city of Hat Yai, hit repeatedly, as well as Phuket and most recently in April 2015, the resort island of Koh Samui.

Referendum backlash

The thinking behind a decisive strategic shift after a 13-year campaign marked by only tactical variations is less easy to gauge. The proximate trigger appears to have been anger over the military's draft constitution. While approved by 61% of voters in a national referendum on Aug. 7, the charter -- strikingly -- was rejected in majority-Muslim Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala, amid criticism that it gives explicit precedence to Theravada Buddhism among various religions practiced in Thailand. In the week leading up to the vote, bomb attacks surged across the three provinces against a backdrop of anti-charter graffiti sprayed at multiple locations. The out-of-area attacks of Aug. 11-12 appeared to follow directly from the spike of activity in the border provinces.

A broader motive likely relates to a stumbling peace process the BRN has specifically denounced. In an October 2015 interview with the Nikkei Asia Review held outside Thailand, the group issued a rare communique spelling out for the first time a willingness to negotiate with Bangkok, but along with the key proviso of international mediation. Unwilling to countenance any internationalization of what it insists is a domestic issue, the government has pursued a glacially slow process of talks facilitated by Malaysia with a group of minor factions-in-exile known as MARA Patani, which has no control over militant operations inside Thailand.

By shifting the campaign north to threaten Thailand's economic jugular, the BRN may well be calculating that it can now command Bangkok's attention from a position of undeniable strength.

Finally, BRN leaders are apparently aware of the need to recalibrate a campaign that has now dragged on for 13 years with few concrete gains that it can show a conflict-weary population. Dramatically widening the conflict sends a strong message to the movement's support base and to a wider Malay-Muslim constituency that the group is now a force the government ignores at its peril.

Significantly, the operation appears to have come against the backdrop of a broad reassessment of strategy regarding the relationship between political and military operations, negotiations with the Thai state, and possible openings to the international community. The October communique and the interview are understood to have emerged from months of internal debate -- militating against the suggestion the attacks were carried out by a splinter faction of "Young Turks" impatient with the movement's political leadership.

Saving face

How the Thai government responds to an altogether new challenge is still unclear. But with millions of foreigners flocking to southern resorts each year and the tourist high season approaching, its reaction will be watched closely by foreign governments, tour companies and insurance firms.

What is almost certain is that the junta will avoid conceding officially and without ambiguity that the BRN may have been responsible for the attacks. At one level, that would imply a security failure to contain the conflict in the border region at a time when the military has been touting a decline in violence and moving to complete by October a drawdown of regular forces from other army regions. At another, it would beg the question very publicly of whether the government is ready -- effectively under duress -- to reassess its negotiation policy and engage the movement more directly.

The imperative of saving face is more likely to see the investigation coming to rest in politically comfortable middle-ground that has already been broadly mapped out: a scenario in which unnamed politicians, presumably Muslim, angered by the NCPO's roadmap for reform, were purportedly able to hire insurgent bombers -- retired or active -- to undertake the attacks.

This version of events blithely ignores the operational complexity of the bombings and the planning behind them, which points not to a grab-bag of "weekend mercenaries" but to a disciplined and experienced team of at least 30 operatives and support personnel. It does however have the benefit of conceding possible insurgent involvement while maintaining the spotlight on anti-government political "masterminds." It also plays into a deeply-rooted cultural proclivity to attribute pecuniary rather than ideological motives to political violence.

More violence possible

Behind this facade, real concern over the vulnerability of the tourism industry will likely prompt other steps in the coming weeks. On the security front, some measures are likely to be selectively extended from the embattled border region to resort provinces in the central and upper south. That may involve more CCTV cameras, more intelligence resources focused on local Patani-Malay communities, and more visible deployments in tourist zones of uniformed Territorial Defense Volunteers. Whether such measures can be much more than cosmetic in the face of an experienced and tactically adaptive enemy is an open question.

Predictable too are official assurances that the peace process with groups whose "views differ from the state" -- Bangkok-code for Malay separatists and more specifically MARA Patani -- remain on track. But emphasizing a process that the BRN has already publicly excoriated may only serve to aggravate the situation.

A far wider question is whether the junta is ready to turn to existing backchannels to explore direct contacts with the BRN. That step would require a clear-eyed assessment of the latest situation and its implications; and a willingness to set aside drift and denial in favor of tough policy decisions leading into uncharted territory. For the past decade there has been little sign of either.

Short of that, however, it is difficult to envisage the BRN's leadership contenting itself with recent successes. Now that it has finally moved to take its campaign out-of-area, the prospect of further attacks aimed at Thailand's economically vital tourism industry is real.

Anthony Davis is a Thailand-based security analyst and writer for HIS-Jane's.

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