The Southern Thailand Insurgency in the Wake of the March 2012 Bombings
Jun 21, 2012
On March 31, 2012, a series of coordinated bombings rocked the southern Thai cities of Yala and Hat Yai. In Yala, a car bomb and two motorcycle bombs detonated 10 minutes apart on a crowded street, killing 11 and wounding 106. In Hat Yai, a pickup truck loaded with two 33-pound gas tanks packed with ammonium nitrate was parked in the underground garage of the largest hotel in the city, killing three and wounding more than 300. These attacks were the worst to strike southern Thailand since 2007 and garnered domestic and international media attention.
Despite these attacks, this article argues that the insurgency in southern Thailand is not entering a new stage. Instead, the March 2012 coordinated bombings should be viewed as a reminder that the slow-burning insurgency has entered its ninth year, claiming the lives of 5,200 people in more than 11,000 incidents of violence. Additionally, the Thai government and military continue to pursue weak policy measures in southern Thailand, the latter of which appears to be more worried about political developments in the capital. These factors ensure that the insurgency in southern Thailand will persist for the foreseeable future.
Background to the Escalation of Violence
Insurgency is not new to southern Thailand and has its roots in the 1909 Anglo-Siamese border agreement. Since then, the majority Muslim Malay inhabitants of Thailand’s three southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat have resisted attempts to be assimilated into Thai culture or have taken up arms. Malay rebels, however, were divided over goals and ideology, and effective Thai counterinsurgency and surging economic growth in the 1980s led to a collapse of the rebellion by the mid-1990s. Hardliners incubated, and by 2004 had renewed their secessionist rebellion. Unlike previous iterations of the insurgency, the current militants have taken the fight into the cities and towns and regularly engage in mass casualty terrorist attacks. They have succeeded in driving large numbers of Buddhist Thais out of the region and turning large swaths of territory into ungoverned space.
Violence began in 2004 and grew steadily as the Thai government implemented a series of failed counterinsurgency policies, while being in denial about the insurgents’ goals. Violence peaked in mid-2007, when the Thai army surged the region with some 60,000 troops. Yet since the end of 2008, violent incidents rose steadily and then plateaued. Since January 2009, more than 1,230 people have been killed and 2,730 wounded. This includes: 102 soldiers killed and 520 wounded; 57 police killed and 260 wounded; 195 rangers or defense volunteers killed and 267 wounded; 112 village headmen or their deputies killed and 79 wounded; 762 civilians killed and 1,576 wounded; 31 teachers killed and 18 wounded; and four monks killed and eight wounded.
Additionally, since the start of 2009 there have been more than 496 successful bombings, not including 63 failed or defused improvised explosive devices (IED), and some 96 separate grenade attacks. Insurgents use grenades as often as they capture them from security forces. In the past five years, there have only been more IED attacks on an annual basis in two countries: Afghanistan and Iraq. Most IED attacks reported in the media are in the 11-pound range, although 44-pound IEDs are routinely employed. While car and motorcycle bombs garner headlines, most IEDs are command-detonated bombs buried beneath or beside the road in rural areas to target soldiers on teacher escort duties. Disturbingly, throughout 2011 militants increased their use of time-delayed secondary bombs to target security forces and first responders. In June 2011, for example, four of the eleven IEDs were time-delayed. In May 2012, two of the defused bombs were time-delayed, intended for first responders.
During the past three years, insurgents have gained greater confidence in engaging in sophisticated attacks on hard military targets. Since January 2009, there have been 46 raids, an average of just over one per month. Not only have these attacks been successful in terms of killing security forces and capturing weapons, they have exposed real weaknesses and incompetence within the Royal Thai Army (RTA). For example, in January 2011 insurgents attacked a remote army base, killing four soldiers, including their commander, and wounding 13 others. They made off with at least 20 small arms and assault rifles. In March 2012, an estimated 50 militants attacked a remote military outpost in Narathiwat’s Bacho district with M79 grenades and assault weapons, wounding 12 soldiers. The firefight lasted 20 minutes before the militants retreated. The same day, militants overtook a Ranger outpost, executing two Rangers and making off with seven weapons.
Bold attacks on hardened military outposts are not a daily occurrence, as militants tend to be conservative and avoid unnecessary risks. Nevertheless, they still engage in three to four prolonged firefights a month with security forces. They have demonstrated that they are capable of planning and executing fairly sophisticated attacks against hardened Thai military targets.
Government Failures to Quell the Insurgency
The violence has little to do with who is in power in Bangkok despite each successive government’s pledge that they will end the conflict. Although the current incarnation of the insurgency began under Thaksin Shinawatra’s rule, violence soared following the September 2006 coup, peaking in mid-2007. The RTA initiated their own “surge,” and violence dropped measurably in 2008. Yet following the Democrat Party’s assumption of power in December 2008—a party whose electoral base encompasses the deep south—violence climbed in 2009, and has remained stubbornly persistent since. The mid-2011 electoral victory of Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra—who won a landslide everywhere but the deep south—has had no impact on the rate of violence. The southern insurgency did not play a role in the election, which was dominated by elite politics in Bangkok and the issue of national reconciliation, including the return of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In short, since the coup, no government has either wanted to hold the military accountable for the south or put in place policies to which the military strongly objects. The easiest decision is to let the military continue with its current measures, which have failed to stem the violence. No government has been willing to tackle the issue of security force impunity and seriously investigate allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings. Successive regimes have been unwilling to push through legislation that would give the southern region more political and cultural identity.
There are some 60,000 security forces deployed in the south, yet RTA budget priorities are focused more on prestige items, which they struggle to maintain or deploy, such as the HTMS Chakri Naruebet, the region’s only aircraft carrier, which last put out to sea for a High Availability Disaster Recovery (HADR) operation in November 2010, or a new squadron of Gripen fighter jets. Despite a surge in military expenditures since the September 2006 coup, little has gone to the security forces in the deep south. Yet the south continues to drain resources from the various Thai governments, which have spent roughly TBT160 billion ($5.05 billion) in counterinsurgency operations and development projects in the far south since violence erupted in January 2004.
The security forces remain riddled with rivalry, especially between the police and army. Although the inter-agency Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC), which played a large role in quelling the insurgency in the 1980s-1990s, was reestablished in 2007—after former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra dismantled it in 2002—it has less authority than it did in the past. Reforms in late 2011 to make the SBPAC report directly to the prime minister’s office have done little to alter developments. The RTA’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) remains the lead agency and coordinating mechanism, autonomous from political control. While the SBPAC is supposed to be in charge of development planning, the army’s ISOC still controls most development funds. The senior RTA leadership appears convinced that the insurgency is driven by smuggling operations, not secessionism or political grievances. For example, three days after the deadly car bombings in Yala and Hat Yai in March 2012, RTA commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha explained, “It’s not just about separatism, there is a new kind of threat from drug dealers and contraband traders.”
The government has persistently failed to ameliorate the violence. Countless initiatives have been promised to the southerners but little has actually been implemented. Plans to make Malayu the working language have never been operationalized. The government has spent some Bt63 billion ($1.98 billion) on development projects in the south, but some in the south complain that increased funding has exacerbated the problem. The insurgency has never solely been about poverty or under-development—although southerners do complain about these issues—but identity. Indeed, the Malay-dominated southern provinces are not the poorest in Thailand; that ignoble designation goes to the Issarn region in the country’s northeast, not surprisingly the epicenter of the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” movement. According to the United Nations Development Program, the southern provinces fair well in most human development indicators, although they clearly lag in education and security. Most of the development assistance has been administered by the RTA’s ISOC, which has directed the funds to communities with low levels of violence or trusted loyalists, which only fuels resentment.
The security forces, operating under the 2005 Emergency Decree, have blanket immunity. Not one official or member of the security forces has been convicted of wrongdoing, despite evidence compiled by human rights activists of abuses and extrajudicial killings. There is some evidence that the culture of impunity is starting to recede. In March 2012, an independent commission concluded that a group of paramilitary rangers had mistakenly shot dead four Muslim villagers. In a rare concession, the government announced that it would allow the rangers to be indicted and stand trial. The 4th Army commander, Lieutenant General Udomchai Thammasarorat, pledged, “If the court finds them guilty and sentence them to imprisonment, we will accept the court decision.” Although this is a step in the right direction, those charged are still rangers, not regular soldiers, which is an important distinction.
The legal front has perpetuated the violence. Under the Emergency Decree, suspected militants can be held for 28 days without charge. Due to the incompetence of the police or simply their inability to garner evidence, more than 90% of the suspects are released. Of those that stood trial, by mid 2011 the acquittal rate was 43%. The numbers for 2011 were even worse. For example, in December 2011 a Thai court dismissed charges against 72 of 100 insurgent suspects who stood trial in 2011 due to insufficient evidence. On April 30, 2012, five suspected members of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the insurgent group most responsible for violence, were acquitted of murder and separatist activities. In part, the court dismissed the case because of mistreatment of the suspects while in detention. The high rate of acquittals has infuriated the army, which both lessened their already questionable willingness to work with the police and possibly encouraged extrajudicial killings, fueling local anger over security forces’ impunity.
While the Yingluck government has recently come under assault for allegedly holding talks with the rebels, all governments since 2004 have held back-channel talks. To date, however, the rebel representatives have failed to prove that they have command and control over the militants. Many of the outspoken “representatives” include old members of the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), which, by their own admission, are not engaging in the violence. The insurgency is horizontal, comprised of disparate groups without a clear leadership structure. More importantly, the militants have little incentive to negotiate. They are not losing, but instead are accomplishing their short-term objectives: making the region ungovernable, eliminating moderate Muslims and political rivals, sowing distrust between the people and the state, forcing people into parallel Muslim social service providers and schools, convincing people that the state is unable to protect them, and driving Buddhists from the region. The Thai government has offered little in the negotiations. The government is just now implementing Malayu language instruction in schools, some five years after it promised to do so. More importantly, any meaningful autonomy plan that might appeal to the insurgents is off the table for as long as the Thai king is alive and the military holds significant political sway. The military has expressed its steadfast objection to any proposed autonomy. No change to the unitary Thai state is possible during the reign of the current monarch.
There have been other small measures, most of which have centered on reorganizing the chain of command and improving inter-agency cooperation. In May 2012, the government implemented a program to pay compensation to the victims of the violence—both victims of militants and Thai security forces. Overall, however, the Yingluck Shinawatra government has done little to challenge the RTA’s handling of the south, or implement any other new bold policies.
It is unlikely that the militants will stage any large-scale attacks as they did on March 31 in the near future. Although they disabused the government’s assertion that the insurgency was under control, such attacks do put pressure on the security sector to respond. Ten suspects were arrested—although two were later released for lack of evidence—and a cache of materials and weapons was recovered. Losses at that rate are unsustainable for a small movement, especially when low-level attacks are so effective in achieving their short-term goals. Violence in April and May did decline, back to the statistical norm.
As far as the RTA is concerned, that level of violence is probably acceptable, as it is more concerned about elite machinations in Bangkok, surrounding the possible amnesty and return of Thaksin Shinawatra, as well as preparations for the royal succession and the subsequent political fallout. The insurgency in the south remains a low-burn side conflict, but one that allows the RTA to justify a larger expenditure and to ensure that there is no challenge to the unitary Thai state.
As for the United States, the National Counterterrorism Center just released an annual report listing Thailand as the seventh most terrorist-prone country. Yet the U.S. government has downplayed the violence, which has not targeted Westerners or moved out of the deep south. Instead, Washington is focused on rebuilding its alliance with Thailand, engaging in the annual Cobra Gold multilateral exercises, and gaining a permanent HADR facility at the U-Tapao military base.
Zachary Abuza is professor of political science and international relations at Simmons College.
 According to the Southern Border Province Administration, between January 2004 and December 2011 there were 5,243 fatalities and nearly 9,000 people were wounded or otherwise injured in 12,604 insurgent attacks. See “South’s Seemingly Lost Cause,” Bangkok Post, January 8, 2012.
 The author’s data is based on open source reporting and as such is lower than official figures. Not all casualties are reported in the media, and many people reported as wounded later die. The author indicates when official data is used. The author does not have access to official data on a regular basis, and when he does it tends to be aggregate numbers. By carefully coding open source data, the author was able to do much more detailed statistical analysis on victim types, location of attacks, trends in how people were killed, size of improvised explosive devices, and more.
 This data comes from a database that the author maintains derived from open source media reporting. As such, it is conservative and lower than official tallies.
 “Rebels Attack Army Camp, Kill Soldiers,” Bangkok Post, January 20, 2011.
 “Two Army Outposts Attacked in the South,” Bangkok Post, March 9, 2010.
 For the growth in Thai military expenditures since the coup, see the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s index, available at http://milexdata.sipri.org.
 “B160bn Spent Fighting Southern Unrest,” Bangkok Post, May 8, 2012; “South’s Seemingly Lost Cause,” Bangkok Post, January 8, 2012.
 “SBPAC Given Wide Powers,” Bangkok Post, January 20, 2011.
 “Another Weekend Bomb Victim Dies,” Bangkok Post, April 3, 2012.
 “2009 Thailand Human Development Report,” United Nations Development Program, May 2010. The Human Achievement Index is eight indices based on 40 indicators.
 “Army Rangers Kill Four Pattani Villagers: Region 4 Commander,” MCOT, March 21, 2012; “Rangers At Fault in Fatal Shooting,” Bangkok Post, March 21, 2012.
 Personal interview, team from the Muslim Lawyers Association, Bangkok, Thailand, July 10, 2010; “Seven Years Afterward—An Achievement or a Failure?” Isara News Service, January 3, 2011.
 “Court Drops 72 Insurgency Cases in 1 Year,” Bangkok Post, December 24, 2011.
 “Five Acquitted in Southern Murder Trial,” The Nation, April 30, 2012.
 Personal interview, team from the Muslim Lawyers Association, Bangkok, Thailand, July 10, 2010. For more on the issue of extrajudicial killings, see “They Took Nothing But His Life: Unlawful Killings in Thailand’s Southern Insurgency,” Amnesty International, 2011.
 “SBPAC Denies Talks with Rebels,” Bangkok Post, April 4, 2012.
 Anthony Davis, “Interview: Kasturi Mahkota, Foreign Affairs Spokesman, Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO),” Jane’s Intelligence Review, August 8, 2006.
 “Govt Quietly Studies South,” Bangkok Post, March 8, 2012.
 “Police Arrest 7 Bomb Suspects,” Bangkok Post, April 5, 2012.
 The RTA believes that there are 4,000-5,000 insurgents and 300 people in leadership positions. See “Prayuth Calls for Inclusive Peace Talks,” Bangkok Post, April 3, 2012.
 “2011 Report on Terrorism,” U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, June 2012.