A dramatic attack shattered a nearly two-month-long pause in violence in Thailand’s insurgency-wracked Deep South, when more than 10 gunmen armed with assault rifles and grenades hit a police station along the Malaysian border late Wednesday, injuring three security officials, police said.
By Thursday, no one had yet claimed responsibility for the attack in the Tak Bai district of Narathiwat province, officials said. Police said it could be the work of smugglers or disgruntled insurgents left out of ongoing peace talks between the Thai government and BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional), the largest insurgent group in Thailand’s southern border region.
In the attack – the biggest eruption of violence since the two sides agreed in early April to a 40-day truce to last through Ramadan – police said the gunmen hurled explosives and opened fire with automatic rifles at a nearby customs office and a convenience store, in addition to the marine police station along the Kolok River that separates Thailand from Malaysia.
“Three personnel were injured during the exchange of gunfire,” Col. Narawi Binwae-arong, the police chief of Tak Bai district, told reporters outside the bombed police station on Thursday.
The injured were in stable condition, he added. The attackers targeted four places in a coordinated manner, Narawi said.
“According to the initial witness investigation, the attackers were split into … groups, with one entering the marine police station before hurling pipe bombs and firing M-16 rifles at the officials inside, while another group stayed outside to deliver supporting fire and deter assisting security forces,” he said.
Other groups attacked the nearby Tak Bai Customs Office and set off a homemade bomb at a convenience store about five minutes later, Narawi said.
The attackers had earlier brought down six utility poles along the road, Narawi said, adding they had also scattered nail spikes on the streets to flatten vehicle tires.
“Officials are investigating the case, checking out surveillance cameras for evidence, and issuing arrest warrants,” he said.
Several fire-gutted vehicles were visible Thursday inside the police compound wrecked by the grenades.
Attackers likely ‘illegal trade operators’
“Last night’s attack was quite shocking. It will take time to analyze,” said Maj. Gen. Pramote Prom-in, deputy director for regional military command ISOC-4, upon inspecting the site of the clash.
“We [are looking] at two factors: the insurgents who disagree with the peace talks and [those] who were left out of them.”
Pramote, however, added that authorities believe it is more likely the attack was carried out by “illegal trade operators” who “we have purged” from “April to May.” He was referring to smugglers, mainly of drugs.
The attack was the first one since the Ramadan-time truce, brokered by Malaysia and which had held mostly intact, expired on May 14. The military had recorded five incidents of violence but they were mostly unrelated to the insurgency, officials said.
Four incidents had to do with personal disputes and drug addiction, while a deadly roadside bombing that killed a civilian was carried out by another armed separatist group, the Patani United Liberation Organization, or PULO.
PULO’s leader claimed at the time that the group had carried out the attack in the middle of Ramadan because it was sidelined from the peace talks and wanted to be included
“Last night’s attacks had nothing to do with peace talks … and PULO has no hands in last night’s incident,” Kasturi Mahkota, the PULO leader, told BenarNews on Thursday.
Rahim Noor, the Malaysian facilitator of the peace talks, also played down the attack.
“We do not know who did it and why they did it. This will not affect the next round of peace talk negotiation. That is my opinion,” Noor told BenarNews over the phone on Thursday.
BenarNews tried to contact BRN, but they did not immediately respond.
Under the Ramadan Peace Initiative, the BRN separatist rebels and Thai security forces agreed to cease hostilities throughout Islam’s holy month of fasting and into mid-May. Additionally, in a first, unarmed rebels were allowed to visit their families during the period.
The peace initiative was agreed to at the end of the latest round of in-person peace talks between Thai negotiators and the BRN on March 31-April 1 that were brokered by Malaysia.
The Deep South encompasses Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala provinces and four districts of Songkhla province in Thailand’s majority Muslim Malay southern border region. Since the insurgency reignited in January 2004, more than 7,000 people have been killed and 13,500 others injured in violence across the region, according to Deep South Watch, a local think-tank.
The armed separatist movement against Buddhist majority Thailand began in the 1960s. The movement’s primary demand had been independence for the region.
A formal peace process to solve the issue began in 2013, but it never progressed.
Lt. Gen. Nanthadech Yoinual, commander of the 9th regional police bureau in the Deep South, said it was important to note that “the assailants released a clip of the attacks to promote evidence of violence in Deep South to show their existence and capability.”
“In reality, there had been peace for 50 to 60 days. But a small group of insurgents does not want any peace in this region due to their vested interest. Only a few people want violence.”
“There could be many motivations, ranging from the recent arrest of over ten drug gang members, human smugglers to Malaysia. We do not rule out [anything],” Nanthadech said.
A political analyst described the attack as a show of strength.
“Last night’s attacks were meant by the insurgents to show their existence,” Srisompob Jitpiromsri, who heads Deep South Watch, a Pattani-based think-tank
“Who exactly were they? We have to wait for officials to find that out. Patience is needed to make eternal peace.”
On the other side of the border, Malaysian authorities said there was no involvement of Malaysians in the attack.
“That was in Southern Thailand, but, so far, there has been no announcement that Malaysians are involved,” Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin said.
“There is also no information that the culprits are hiding in Malaysia. We are working with Thai authorities on this matter,” Kelantan’s acting police chief Muhamad Zaki Harun told BenarNews, although it is widely believed that BRN leaders and supporters live in northern Peninsular Malaysia.
Authorities would not close the Malaysia-Thai border, he said, adding that closing it would be akin to “severing diplomatic ties” with Thailand and would also mean that “we give in to the threat.”
Subel Rai Bhandari in Bangkok contributed to the report.