What Do Increasing Attacks Against Soft Targets in Thailand’s South Signal?

August 6, 2014

On Friday, July 25, a car bomb rocked the normally peaceful tourist haven of Betong in Thailand’s southern province of Yala, leaving three dead and 42 injured. For the last eight years, Betong had remained relatively untouched by the ongoing insurgency in the Deep South. However, in the last six months, the insurgents have changed tactics and are increasingly demonstrating that they have the ability and deadly resolve to strike anywhere and against anyone.

Following the breakdown of peace talks in July 2013, insurgents have shifted from ambushing soldier and police vehicles to car bombings in public spaces, which have inflicted a greater number of civilian casualties. Photo/Chandler Vandergrift

Following the first-round meeting in February 2013 between the Thai Government and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel group that marked the start of surprise peace talks, insurgents have primarily targeted hard targets such as military and police personnel. However, following the breakdown of talks in July 2013, insurgents have shifted from ambushing soldier and police vehicles to car bombings in public spaces, including markets, schools, and hospitals, which have inflicted a greater number of civilian casualties. Since the peace talks stalled, 35 women have been killed – with Buddhist women making up the majority of victims of targeted killings – and over 60 women have been injured, mainly from bomb blasts. Over the past 10 years, 62 children have lost their lives and over 370 have been injured.

“I don’t have any more children left. I don’t have a reason to live but when I die and am cremated, there will be no one to collect my ashes. Violent incidents take place here every day … anyone can be killed next,” said one mother who recounted her story after her daughter, who worked at a local bank, was shot and her body burned on her way home from work.

To provide a voice for those affected by the violence, Bangkok-based and southern women’s organizations organized a public forum, “Breaking the Wall of Silence: Stop Taking the Lives of Women and Children,” on July 22. Mothers, sisters, and daughters from both Buddhist and Muslim communities recounted heartbreaking stories of how they lost children and loved ones to the violence. A young Muslim mother who herself sustained severe injuries that almost led to her lose her leg, struggled to tell the story of how she awoke in the hospital to find that she would never again see her five-year- old son who was with her at the produce market at the time the bomb went off. Or the story of a disabled Buddhist woman who was unable to run away from an attack and her bullet-ridden body was discovered at the scene. These are the tragic stories disclosed by relatives who lost their loved ones in the decade-long subnational violent conflict in Thailand’s southernmost provinces.

In the forum, most victims and relatives disclosed that they felt invisible and forgotten by society. Although many have been able to access some government compensation schemes, still many victims and survivors are not listed in the official police database, which is a requirement for receiving government assistance. In most cases, victims’ relatives said the best healing for them is to hear the truth about who is responsible for committing the crime. The forum closed with a statement from relatives and representatives of the women’s organizations that addressed the armed parties directly, calling on them to respect the principles of International Humanitarian Law and stop any activity that would harm civilians.

At a public forum, “Breaking the Wall of Silence: Stop Taking the Lives of Women and Children,” on July 22, families of victims and representatives make a statement calling for armed parties to respect the principles of International Humanitarian Law.

They reiterated that public spaces such as schools, markets, hospitals, and religious compounds should be designated as safe zones, and that all armed groups must refrain from military activity in or around the areas that could put children and other civilians at risk. They also called for Muslim and Buddhist religious leaders to reconvene interfaith dialogues to correct any misconceptions in the interpretation of religious principles.

The statement also called for the media and high-ranking officials participating in the forum to take immediate measures to ensure security and safety for civilians, particularly women and children, and improve emergency response capacity and comprehensive short- and long-term assistance. There was also a strong call for the establishment of a truth-seeking mechanism to help speed up reparation and the judicial process.

Last week, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) announced its commitment that peace talks would continue with the aim of permanently ending the southern conflict, but the approach may be different from that taken by the previous government. While negotiations are still being worked out, the increasing attacks on soft targets sends a loud signal of the need for talks that bring lasting conflict resolution for the people of the Deep South.

Ruengrawee Pichaikul is The Asia Foundation’s senior program coordinator in Thailand. She can be reached at ruengrawee.pichaikul@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.