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Aug 12, 2016 | 13:28 GMT

4 mins read

A Wave of Attacks Rocks Southern Thailand

A Wave of Attacks Rocks Southern Thailand
(DARIO PIGNATELLI/Getty Images)

A wave of small explosions targeted police and tourist sites across southern Thailand from Aug. 11 to Aug. 12, killing four people and injuring 34 others, including nine foreign tourists. Altogether, there were at least 12 attacks involving either improvised explosive devices or arson in eight southern provinces. The attacks coincided with the queen's birthday, a major holiday in Thailand.

The violence began Aug. 11 in the town of Trang, where a device exploded outside a market, killing one person and injuring four others. The most damaging attack then occurred in the resort town of Hua Hin, where a pair of simultaneous explosions killed one woman and injured 21 others. Hua Hin was targeted again the following day with two more explosions, and authorities defused a fifth device found there. Elsewhere, Phang Nga and the tourist hot spot of Phuket were each the site of three more attacks. Other attacks were reported in Krabi, Surat Thani, Chumphon and Nakhon Si Thammarat. Police said at least two other devices were found and defused in Phuket on Aug. 10. The similarity in tactics and timing suggests that these attacks were linked and part of a larger, coordinated operation.  

No one has claimed responsibility for the bombs. There are known foreign terrorist threats in Thailand, and security forces stepped up efforts in major tourist hubs such as Phuket back in April in light of intelligence suggesting a foreign attack. Past attacks in Thailand have also been linked to organized crime, business rivalries and retribution for the government's handling of contentious issues such as Uighur asylum seekers. Motives are generally opaque and often overlapping. But the tactics used on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 match most closely those seen in Thailand's long-simmering southern insurgency — small, cellphone-detonated bombs in pairs against security forces and civilians.

A Thai junta spokesman ruled out connections to the southern insurgency but did not provide any evidence. Indeed, the relatively small size of the bombs is consistent with routine militant activity by insurgents in Thailand's southern provinces, where attacks targeting security forces and locals occur several times a week. The southern separatists have demonstrated the ability to conduct sophisticated attacks involving multiple IEDs in crowded urban areas and rarely claim the attacks. All of the attacks on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 took place hundreds of kilometers north of the typical area of operations for southern insurgents. These militants, however, have shown an ability to operate with greater range. In December 2013, for example, insurgents planted a car bomb behind a Phuket police station, and they were connected to a car bomb that detonated in an underground parking lot on Koh Samui in 2015. It is too early to definitively link the recent attacks to the separatists, but it would be a major escalation in the insurgency if such links prove valid.

Meanwhile, Thai authorities have hinted that the attacks were politically motivated, possibly linked to the recent referendum, which approved a new constitution. The junta-drafted charter is meant to contain powerful populist forces and end the cycle of coups and protests. The implication of the claim is that radical supporters of self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra carried out the attacks. Small, sporadic acts of violence — often involving small IEDs or grenades — are common in Thailand during periods of heightened political discontent, but they are typically carried out in isolated areas against politically symbolic targets late at night to minimize damage. Moreover, this type of attack would cost the Red Shirt movement public support and give the junta the pretext to extend its rule. Nonetheless, given the degree to which politics, crime and violence are intertwined in Thailand, nothing can yet be ruled out.

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