On the eve of the Thai New Year’s holiday, a car bomb went off in the underground parking lot of the Central Festival mall on the resort island of Koh Samui. Between seven and ten people were wounded. At almost the same time, a cooperative warehouse in Surat Thai was set ablaze; it is unclear whether the fire was ignited by IEDs. No one was killed or wounded in the second attack.
Authorities are still in the early stages of investigating the attacks, and have come to contradictory findings. The government quickly dismissed links to the insurgency by ethnic Malay separatists that has left 6,300 dead and over 11,000 wounded since January 2011, rather blaming the attack on radical Red Shirts, who seek to discredit the Thai regime. On April 13, authorities arrested a Red Shirt at his home in Issarn. Yet the truck used in the Koh Samui bombing was stolen after a recent attack in Thailand’s Deep South, and some security forces have linked the attack to Ubaidillah Rommuhli, a local insurgent leader believed to be behind a number of other high profile attacks on tourist venues, including the April 2012 bombing of a hotel in Hat Yai.
If the attacks were perpetrated by Malay insurgents, it would represent an important escalation of the conflict in Southern Thailand. In just the six years since January 2009 alone, there have been more than 1,000 bombings, but they have remained confined to the Malay-dominated provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, Pattani, as well as the four districts of Songkhla. Insurgents have rarely ventured out of that area. There have been two exceptions: On May 26, 2013, an IED went off outside a beauty shop on Ramkhamhaeng Avenue in Bangkok, injuring seven people and causing extensive damage. The area was away from the city center and nowhere near any tourist venues or hotels. Interestingly, it had nothing to do with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the primary insurgent group, but a group affiliated with PULO, which was responsible for the previous generation of the insurgency, and which was thought to be trying to win a seat at the peace talks. Then, in December 2013, insurgents planted a car bomb behind the main police station on the tourist island a Phuket. The bomb, the largest ever used by insurgents with a blast radius of 50 meters, was wired and ready for detonation. And yet the insurgents left the device at the police station unexploded, simply intending to signal to the Thai security forces that they had the capability.
Insurgents tend to feel that out of area attacks are counter-productive, violate their sense of a “defensive jihad,” and would unleash Thai security forces on them, with broad public backing. As such they do target tourist venues, but within the Deep South: The border town of Sungai Golok was the first to be hit by a car bomb, while a car bomb at Betong, Yala in July 2015, killed three and wounded 51. The last car bomb, placed in the car park of the Lee Garden Hotel in Hat Yai on March 31, 2012, killed three and wounded 336. These attacks get Bangkok’s attention without raising alarms in Western capitals or resulting in lost political legitimacy.
There are two other possible culprits for the attacks. In February 2015, two small incendiary devices were detonated at the luxury Siam Paragon Mall in Bangkok, while a grenade went off outside of the criminal court in Bangkok in March 2015. Three Red Shirts were arrested for the attack. The government has focused its investigations on links to radical Red Shirts. The Surat Thani warehouse that was arsoned is owned by Suthep Thaugsuban, the head of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, better known as the Yellow shirts, whose demonstrations led to the May 22, 2014 coup d’état.
Finally, last month, Thai security forces launched a string of raids on Koh Samui, targeting criminal enterprises, drug sellers, and local mafia. More than 750 police and soldiers took part in raids on 26 venues, arresting five suspects. The bombings could be in retaliation for these attacks, or simply to discredit the junta that seized power on May 22.
Whoever was responsible, the impact is clear. The National Committee for Peace and Order will use the threat of violence to the nation’s massive tourist industry to continue justifying its draconian rule under Article 44. Clearly the junta is going to do everything it can to link the attack to the Red Shirts, for political purposes, despite contradictory evidence. If the attacks are linked to the insurgency, the military can be expected to halt the withdrawal of five battalions of troops from the deep south that was supposed to begin this month. But it would also force the government to get serious about resuming peace talks. To date, the military-backed government has shown absolutely no interest in making any meaningful concessions, and as such talks are unlikely to be held soon. That portends more such attacks.
Zachary Abuza is the principal of Southeast Asian Analytics, and the author of multiple books and reports on the insurgency in southern Thailand.