BANGKOK — For more than a decade, Thailand’s Muslim separatists limited their insurgency to the country’s south, keeping their guerrilla raids, bombings and beheadings in the provinces bordering Malaysia.
Now, following a spate of attacks in tourist spots this month, a number of analysts are wondering whether the insurgents are expanding their scope — and trying to send a blunt message to the military coup leaders who now run Thailand.
“The bombings may have been intended to compel the military government to reconsider its approach to the conflict in the deep south,” said Matthew Wheeler, a Bangkok-based analyst for the International Crisis Group and authority on the southern insurgency.
Thai Muslims have been fighting the government off and on for decades, but a bloodier insurgency erupted in 2004 through a series of splinter groups that has been confined almost entirely to the four southernmost provinces. More than 6,000 people have been killed in the fight for independence of the Muslim south from the rest of the majority Buddhist country.
The insurgents had tried on a couple of occasions — unsuccessfully in Phuket in 2013, and successfully on Koh Samui in 2015 — to carry out attacks outside their home turf. But those were nothing like the series of bombings that occurred in tourist hot spots this month on Mother’s Day, an auspicious occasion here because it is also the day that the venerated Thai queen’s birthday is celebrated.
There were relatively small explosions in resort areas including Phuket and Krabi, and four bombs detonated in Hua Hin, the beach resort town where the Thai royal family has a residence.
Four people were killed and scores wounded, including 11 foreigners, but the bombs seemed designed to scare more than maim — the Hua Hin explosions occurred after a ceremony to commemorate the queen’s birthday, attended by hundreds of people.
The attacks bore the hallmarks of southern insurgents. The materials of the devices and manner of the bombings used in this month’s attacks were the same as those used for more than a decade in the southernmost provinces, Wheeler said.
But the junta that seized power two years ago blamed the bombings on the “red shirts,” supporters of the Shinawatra family that fielded two democratically elected prime ministers, Thaksin and then his sister Yingluck.
Yingluck was overthrown when army Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha — now derided in Internet memes, complete with Photoshopped orange toupee, as the Thai Donald Trump — led the military coup two years ago.
Just a day after the national police chief said that southern separatists were the obvious suspects, a spokesman for the junta said it was clear that “disgruntled political parties” were behind the bombings. The hasty conclusion led to widespread criticism that the junta was more interested in politics than justice.
Two more bombs went off near a hotel in Pattani, the insurgents’ heartland, Wednesday, killing a 25-year-old woman who worked at the hotel and wounding 29.
The Yingluck government had tried to hold talks with the separatists, but the discussions collapsed before the 2014 coup.
The main militant group, the National Revolutionary Front, or BRN, has rejected the military government’s peace dialogue process. It demands international mediation and observers, Wheeler said. “The Thai government, meanwhile, finds this unacceptable. They fear internationalization of the conflict, which they see as a path to foreign intervention and eventual partition,” he said.
The separatists appear to have realized this stalemate could be the new normal, now that a new constitution, Thailand’s 20th since the absolute monarchy was replaced by a constitutional monarchy in 1932, is being finalized.
The constitution, which would allow a junta-appointed Senate to bypass the elected House and choose the prime minister, was backed by 61 percent of voters in a referendum month — after the military government banned all criticism of the draft constitution. After it passed, the junta, which has consistently delayed holding democratic elections, said it would hold a poll by the end of next year.
But in an editorial this month, the Bangkok Post said the constitution-drafting committee’s focus on the prime minister’s role was fueling suspicions that “next year’s planned general election will not be nearly as democratic as intended.”
Indeed, Prayuth said this month that he would be willing to stay on as prime minister if there were no other “good people” for the job.
The realization that the junta was not going anywhere anytime soon appears to have propelled the insurgents, analysts said. The southern provinces overwhelmingly voted against the new military-backed constitution (as did the northeast area that is the heartland of the pro-Thaksin “red shirts”).
“The constitution will put the formal infrastructure in place so that even if the junta steps down, they will still be in control,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai political scientist in exile in Japan, where he teaches at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University.
“This might be starting to worry the Muslim majority in the south,” Pavin said. “They weren’t really that fond of Thaksin and Yingluck, but they now realize it’s worse to be stuck with a military regime,” he said, adding that the military “doesn’t know how to deal with the south.”
Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the intent behind the bombings was clear. “The bombs were a slap in the face for Prayuth,” Sunai said. “They were a very direct challenge, telling him that he’s not in charge and that there are things he can’t control.”
The violence appeared specifically aimed at undermining the country’s tourism industry, which provides vital income to the government.
“My own reading is that it’s intended to do economic damage, to scare tourists away,” said Michael Montesano, an expert on Thailand affiliated with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “If they can make Bangkok suffer, they think they will be taken more seriously.”
Thailand’s economy as a whole has been hurting since the coup, with investors wary of the upheaval and concerned about the rule of law. But tourism, which accounts for about one-tenth of the economy, has remained a relative bright spot, with visitors continuing to flock to Thailand’s beaches and mountains.
After a blip in 2014, tourist numbers rose to a record 30 million last year, according to official statistics, and the figure is projected to hit 32 million this year. The biggest influx by far comes from China, with 8 million tourists visiting Thailand last year despite the bombing of a shrine popular among Chinese. That attack was blamed on an array of the junta’s political opponents, but last week, two Chinese Uighurs went on trial for the bombing.