By DON PATHAN
SPECIAL TO THE NATION
Needless to say, the incident sent shock waves around the country. And in keeping with the usual knee-jerk reactions of senior Thai security officers, all sorts of off-the-mark statements were issued. Some suggested a “new generation” of fighters had emerged, while others were taken aback by the insurgents’ audacity, calling it a “new” development.
First of all, no one doubts the boldness and audacity of the operation. But what was relatively “new” on this occasion was that the insurgents combined hostage taking and car stealing.
Over the past 16 months, there have been four incidents of insurgents stealing vehicles and using them as car bombs the same day. The most recent one was the Big C car bomb in May this year that injured scores of onlookers who paid for their curiosity despite prior warnings in the form of a “smaller bomb” by the insurgents.
In February 2016, seven policemen were injured in a car-bomb attack near the Border Patrol Police base in Pattani’s Tambon Rusamilae. A Honda Jazz was stolen from the same district that day.
In August 2016, an ambulance van was stolen from a tambon in Pattani and hours later used as a car bomb at the Southern View Hotel.
And in April 2016, three suspects carjacked a pickup truck, packed it with explosives and forced its owner to drive it into the heart of Yala while holding his wife as hostage. The plan fell apart as the driver abandoned the bomb-laden vehicle and ran for help. The insurgents didn’t go through with the threat and released the wife unharmed.
Deputy Defence Minister Udomdej Sitabutr blamed the August 16 operation on Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), one of the long-standing separatist movement that controls virtually all the combatants on the ground. He added that security lapses in the far South permitted insurgents to carry out attacks against government troops.
Army chief General Chalermchai Sitthisad dubbed the insurgents involved in the August 16 operation as a “new generation” of militants lured by money and under the control of Abdulloh Waemanor, an exiled headmaster of an Islamic boarding school, who Thai authorities believe controls the military wing of the BRN.
But if the Thai military intelligence is to be believed, then all Patani Malay combatants act under Waemanor’s directive. One has to wonder about the merit of his statement.
Thai Army sources said Chalermchai wants to put Waemanor in the spotlight to pressure him to endorse the ongoing peace dialogue between Bangkok and MARA Patani, an umbrella organisation made up of various long-standing Patani Malay separatist movements.
Sadly, the military thinks it is only dealing with disgruntled Malays with guns and conveniently overlooks the historical root causes of the conflict.
The insurgents behind the August 16 operation were “new” only because they were not on the blacklist of any of the security agencies in the far South. Authorities quickly learned this reality when they were unable to match the faces of the suspects with anybody in their files.
And so when the top brass in Bangkok demanded some answers about the identity of these young men in black who were driving around in seven stolen vehicles, the officers at the operational level conveniently referred to them as “new faces”.
Although the act of stealing cars and using them as car bombs is not new, the militants’ August 16 operation by itself was a disaster.
Each of the six vehicles stolen from the dealer was driven by one suspect. The first vehicle, a Toyota Vigo, was packed with explosives and set off on a Highway 418 in the vicinity of Pattani’s Nong Chik district, targeting a moving military vehicle. Four soldiers from a medical unit suffered minor injures.
The second vehicle, a Mitsubish Triton, ran out of petrol and was abandoned in Songkhla’s Thepa district, not far from the original crime scene, while the third pickup truck, an Isuzu Dmax, was abandoned in Pattani’s Tambon Klong Maning.
The fourth vehicle, a Dmax, was abandoned in a rubber plantation in Pattani’s Khok Pho district and the fifth, also an Isuzu Dmax, packed with a home-made bomb, crashed through a security checkpoint. But the vehicle was eventually hunted down and the suspected insurgent killed in a gunfight with the police in Nong Chik.
The sixth vehicle, an Isuzu Cab, was used as a car bomb in an attack on police homes in Pattani’s Mayo district. The seventh vehicle, a Mazda, was also and was left abandoned in Tambon Chanae in Songkhla’s Sabayoi district, with three gallons of petrol inside. It was this vehicle that transported the four from the auto dealer to a nearby wooded area where they were supposed to be executed.
The first victim was shot in the head and later died in hospital. The second survived a shot to the shoulder while the other two wrestled their way out and succeeded in escaping from the gunman.
In the end, only two of the six vehicles were turned into car bombs. The rest were abandoned, possibly because of the quick reaction by the authorities, who had been alerted to the robbery by the escaped hostages.
Perhaps the insurgents had aimed too high, hence their failure to pull off more car bomb attacks. Perhaps our top brass were too panicky and tried too hard to sound like they were on top of things.
DON PATHAN is a consultant and member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com), a civil society organisation dedicated to promoting critical discussion on the insurgency in Thailand’s Malay-speaking South.