A Feb. 20 car-bomb attack in Thailand’s Narathiwat province has shattered trust needed to re-start Deep South peace talks “like a sand castle,” a military spokesman there said.
“We try to build trust but sometimes it is like we are building a sand castle. We shape it up but when they use violent means such as a bomb, mutual trust is definitely shattered,” Col. Pramote Prom-in, spokesman for Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Region 4, Forward, told BenarNews by phone from the Deep South last week.
Thailand’s junta-led government has been looking to open a new round of talks with Muslim separatist rebels in the southernmost three provinces. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha picked former Army Chief of Staff Aksara Kerdphol to lead government efforts to communicate with the rebels and other stakeholders in the restive region.
Before the military seized power last May, two rounds of Malaysia-mediated peace talks had stalled under the previous, civilian-led government. Since 2004, rebel groups have fought to carve out a separate state from Narathiwat and two other Muslim-dominated provinces in far southern Thailand. More than 6,300 people – mainly civilians – have died in the conflict, according to AFP.
In trying to re-open the door to talks, the junta has changed the rhetoric from “negotiations” to “dialogue” so as to create an informal air around them.
“Peace talks are not a trade bargain that can be concluded at once,” Pramote said.
The path the government is pursuing consists of three steps, he said: building trust, ratifying an agreement and laying out a roadmap to peace.
But the recent car-bombing outside a karaoke bar in Narathiwat town, which injured 17 people and damaged surrounding buildings, has eroded that first step, the spokesman suggested.
“The incident is an attempt of a pro-violent movement who are trying to ruin the southern peace dialogue, to damage the economy, to instigate fears among people and, importantly, to undermine the state’s authorities,” Pramote said earlier, in a news release issued the day after the attack.
Two more bombs at blast site
The bombing occurred on the second day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, which is observed in Thailand. No one died in the attack.
“A car bomb was detonated by remote control outside a karaoke bar,” Anurut Kritsakaraket, police commander of three southern provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, told AFP.
The bar was closed at the time of the attack, but the explosion wounded a group of people who were eating nearby, one of them seriously, he added.
A bomb disposal team defused a second bomb, which was hidden on a motorcycle parked nearby, and a smaller homemade device 500 meters from the blast site, AFP reported.
Authorities are hunting at least five suspected militants behind the attack, according to Thai media reports.
On Feb. 23 police identified a man named “Abdullah”, who was wanted for a drive-by shooting in Pattani province in 2014, as the prime suspect, the Bangkok Post reported.
“The police are processing evidence. We found sufficient evidence and connections of mayhem. I anticipate [issuing an] arrest warrant soon,” Pramote told BenarNews.
Security stepped up
Meanwhile, authorities in the Deep South are stepping up security ahead of the annual festival honoring the Goddess Lim Ko Niao, which people of Chinese descent in the region celebrate. It is set to take place from March 1-8.
Since the attack in Narathiwat, the military has increased security measures through the so-called village self-defense force, which is made up of Interior Ministry personnel and volunteers, Pramote said. The military instituted this force as a way to shield the civilian population in the Deep South from militant attacks.
Under this arrangement, more than 10,000 people have been mobilized to keep the peace in 37 restive districts in the Deep South.
The Feb. 20 attack occurred amid reports of a reduction in militant-perpetrated violence in the region.
On Feb. 25, the Bangkok Post published an editorial that took aim at such statistics touted by the government.
“Another round of vehicle bombs in Narathiwat province last week has shown this government has no more control of the Deep South’s violence than any of its predecessors,” the newspaper opined.
“The military regime has been touting statistics that ‘prove’ that violence in the South has diminished since last May. The numbers are correct, as presented,” the editorial went on to say.
However, it added, “The value of fewer attacks is largely lost on Narathiwat and its three neighboring provinces. People there will be impressed when attacks reach zero, and separatists agree to stop their violent ways.”