Thailand's restive south hit by fresh blasts

Members of a bomb squad unit inspecting the scene of a blast in the Bacho district of Thailand's southern Narathiwat province yesterday.
Members of a bomb squad unit inspecting the scene of a blast in the Bacho district of Thailand's southern Narathiwat province yesterday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Junta denies insurgents involved; suspicion now falls on Red Shirts

NARATHIWAT (Thailand) • Fresh explosions rocked Thailand's deep south, seriously wounding one soldier, days after a spate of bomb and arson attacks struck multiple tourist resort towns.

Last week's attacks have heightened concerns that Thailand's long-running southern Islamist insurgency may have spread after years of stalled peace talks - a suggestion the kingdom's junta has been keen to deny.

A string of overnight attacks has highlighted how the insurgency continues to rage in the three Muslim-majority provinces bordering Malaysia.

"One soldier was seriously injured from a bomb buried under the road" yesterday morning, Captain Wiroge Boonkae, from Bacho police station in southern Narathiwat province, said.

Police said a further three blasts struck neighbouring Yala province, though no injuries were reported.

The area, which was annexed a century ago by Thailand, has been battered by 12 years of violence between the Buddhist-majority state and shadowy Muslim rebels seeking greater autonomy.

Near-daily shootings and roadside bombs have left more than 6,500 dead since 2004, most of them civilians.

But the violence has largely remained local with militants loath to spark international outrage by targeting Western tourists.

Last week's attacks hit tourist resort towns including Hua Hin and Phuket further north - a highly unusual assault in a country where foreign visitors are rarely caught up in political violence.

The attacks bore many hallmarks of the southern insurgents - who never claim their operations - including coordinated multiple strikes and the type of devices used.

Four people died and scores were wounded, including many European tourists.

Thailand's army said yesterday it has detained several people for questioning over the bombings.

They are being held at army facilities but none has been charged, military government spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree said.

No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing spree but the Thai authorities have ruled out international terrorism and say the culprits are "local saboteurs".

But they have dismissed any suggestion that southern insurgents were behind the attacks. "It is not right to say it is an extension of the deep south insurgency," deputy junta chief General Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters yesterday.

The official denial was unsurprising, said security experts. Admitting that southern insurgents could be involved in last week's attacks would have serious economic and security implications for Thailand.

Already, the kingdom could lose up to 200,000 foreign visitors and US$293 million (S$394 million) in tourism revenue this year, the head of its tourism authority said yesterday.

The wave of attacks is seen as the biggest challenge to an industry that has weathered more than a decade of instability and accounts for 10 per cent of Thailand's economy.

With southern insurgents ruled out by the junta, suspicion has fallen on militants within the so-called "Red Shirt" movement loyal to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Red Shirts have denied any suggestion of involvement and accused the junta of using the bomb blasts to roll out a fresh crackdown against them.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2016, with the headline 'Thailand's restive south hit by fresh blasts'. Print Edition | Subscribe