On May 9, suspected Malay Muslim insurgents bombed a hypermarket in the southern Thai town of Pattani, the latest escalation in an insurgency that since 2004 has ravaged the country’s predominantly Muslim southernmost region.
The Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the largest and most well-armed separatist group operating in the restive region, is widely believed to have been behind the attack. No known group took responsibility for the bombing, as is common in the region’s shadowy conflict.
A small bomb inside a motorcycle detonated near the entrance of the center’s parking lot at around 2:10 pm. Around 15 minutes later, a dramatically much larger bomb hidden in a pickup truck parked a mere five meters from the store’s main entrance exploded, injuring nearly 60 people, including 13 children.
It was the first car bomb in the ethno-religious minority region this year, and the 52nd since the violence erupted in 2004, according to Thailand’s Isra News, an independent news service that covers the conflict.
Questions have immediately arisen whether Big C, Thailand’s second largest hypermarket chain and majority owned by Thai beverage tycoon Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi’s holding company TCC Group, the owner of Chang Beer, was specifically targeted. BRN frequently hits Thai security forces but seldom Thai-owned big businesses in the region. TCC Group’s local businesses have grown strongly under junta rule.
In 2005 and 2012, small-scale incidents took place respectively in Pattani’s Big C’s parking lot and inside the store. However, neither incident impacted the shopping center’s thriving business. On weekends, the hypermarket is usually packed with ethnic Malay Muslims and Thai Buddhists alike, many of whom travel from remote districts to stock up on goods at the region’s largest superstore.
Humans rights groups blasted the perpetrators, noting that they clearly intended to harm innocent civilians, a majority of whom were ethnic Malay Muslims. Some Thai authorities, meanwhile, suggested that the blast aimed at mass casualties. The car bomb ripped through the front entrance, destroying a food court and an adjacent Pizza Company, a fast food chain.
Other investigators told Asia Times that insurgents tried to limit the severity of attack, which was likely meant more as a political statement. A lead police investigator claimed that Big C had even received a phone call warning that a bombing was about to take place. Asia Times could not independently confirm the claim.
Several inside sources who requested anonymity noted that after the perpetrators left the explosive-laden pickup truck parked in front of the store’s main entrance and partially on a curb, it gave police, who had just responded to the motorcycle bomb, time to warn people to back away from the suspicious-looking vehicle.
If the assailants had deployed only the car bomb, then many more people would have been in the immediate area of the truck when it exploded, the source said.
According to local media reports, CCTV footage showed that the driver was 25-year-old Mokorseng Marae, who is the subject of arrest warrants for his alleged involvement in two bombings in Pattani town last year. An army source suggested that Mokorseng may have ties with Seri Waemamu, who was allegedly involved in the 2012 bombing of Lee Gardens Plaza Hotel in Hat Yai, southern Thailand’s largest town in Songkhla province.
Authorities told Asia Times on condition of anonymity that there were possible overlapping reasons for the brazen attack. Some believe that the bombing stemmed, at least in part, from local business conflicts. By targeting the Big C, which is headquartered in Bangkok, locals may now avoid shopping at the superstore and instead use local shops, including a recently opened Malay Muslim-owned mall.
One source suggested it was significant that the pick-up truck was parked near the Pizza Company, which does not offer halal certified food. In 2014, three KFC shops in Yala and Pattani shut down because they were allegedly not granted halal food certification from provincial Islamic committees.
In recent years, Malay Muslims have griped over the government’s stalled plans for developing halal business in the region, including a promised halal industrial center in Pattani’s Panare district.
The bombing comes hard on the heels of recent major violent incidents in the restive region. Suspected insurgents recently launched widespread coordinated attacks, including a bombing of the region’s electricity infrastructure that caused blackouts on April 6 and brazen grenade attacks on security forces on April 19.
The destruction of the infrastructure was in part meant to show BRN opposition to the government’s plans to build a coal-fired power plant in Thepa district of Songkhla, according to anonymous sources with ties to the clandestine movement. Unlike the Big C bombing, however, the coordinated attacks did not result in any civilian casualties.
In recent years, BRN had eased its attacks on civilians. While civilians represented the vast majority of victims in the insurgency’s early phase, they have accounted for 55%-60% of casualties in more recent years, according to a local think tank that monitors the violence. At the same time, BRN has sought to intensify attacks on security forces while scaling down assaults on economic centers and state-run schools.
On April 10, between the two coordinated attacks on infrastructure and troops, BRN issued a rare public statement on the dialogue process now underway with Thailand’s military government, emphasizing its desire for an impartial mediator and international observers to oversee the talks.
The impartial mediator call was criticism of Malaysia, long used as sanctuary for BRN insurgents, but since 2013 has also served as a facilitator for dialogue processes initiated by the Yingluck Shinawatra government, which was ousted by the current ruling junta in a May 2014 coup.
Some activists with ties to the insurgent movement suggest the Big C bombing was a potent indication of BRN’s rejection of the current dialogue process. That includes a “peace zone” initiative now under discussion between junta negotiators and Mara Patani, an umbrella group involved with the dialogue that critics contend lacks command control over on-the-ground insurgents.
Soon after the BRN issued its statement, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told Thai media that he rejected out of hand the insurgent group’s demand for international involvement in the process. On May 5, anonymously hung banners in the Saba Yoi district of Songkhla province condemned Prayuth’s perceived as uncompromising stance, as well as his coup that ousted Yingluck’s elected government.
Saba Yoi is one of four districts of Songkhla province hit by the violence that has more squarly impacted the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala. In recent years, violence in that particular area had dramatically died down, and insurgents, including the aforementioned Seri Waemamu, are now believed to use the districts as sanctuary, according to some security officers.
Thailand’s old establishment, including the military, have long resisted calls for international involvement in brokering a resolution and more self-determination for the Muslim region. Yet, in spite of the junta government’s rigid stance towards BRN and its demands, security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity believe that some sort of autonomy for the region is not only likely but inevitable.
The Big C bombing shows that, despite years of counter-insurgency operations and ramped up security measures, the grinding conflict will not be solved through military means alone.