Car Bomb in Thailand Injures 56 and Damages Peace Talks
Car Bomb in Thailand Injures 56 and Damages Peace TalksBy Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- A devastating car bomb exploded in front of a shopping complex on May 9 in southern Thailand, minutes after a smaller blast lured security forces and rescuers to the site, injuring at least 56 people in the one of the worst attacks on a civilian target this year.
Suspicion immediately fell on Muslim Malay-Thai insurgents fighting for autonomy or independence from Buddhist-majority Thailand.
The stalemate conflict has killed 6,800 people on all sides since 2004.
Unidentified people parked the car bomb in front of a shopping center in downtown Pattani, capital of Pattani province and exploded it on May 9 at about 2:30 p.m. when the area was thronged with buyers and sellers.
Some early reports said assailants first threw "fireworks" into the Big C Supercenter and fled.
Other reports described the first attack as a motorcycle bomb exploding in the entrance of Big C, causing minimal damage.
While trying to determine what occurred, security forces, rescuers and escaping people were hit about 10 minutes later by a much larger car bomb parked nearby at the Big C supermarket's entrance.
Pattani Provincial Hospital said at least 56 people were injured.
"The second blast was a car bomb," Pattani police commander Maj. Gen. Thanongsak Wangsupa told the French news agency Agence-France Presse.
Witnesses posted video and photographs online showing a fireball from the second explosion, and the blackened, burnt wreckage of a vehicle amid the supermarket's broken glass and twisted rubble.
The Big C in Pattani franchise offers about 86,000 square feet (8,000 sq. meters) of space, selling food and general merchandise, according to the company's website.
In its surrounding plaza area, a Muslim Food Park mall includes Swensen's ice cream and other popular venues.
This is the third and worst assault against Big C in Pattani.
In 2005, the site was hit by an improvised explosive hidden among plants and detonated by a mobile phone.
An incendiary device in 2012 caused a small fire among the shelves.
Insurgents have bombed commercial enterprises including car dealerships, plantations, restaurants and hotels to cripple the south's economy.
In recent months, a younger, more militant generation of southern Islamist rebels has emerged, and Thailand's U.S.-trained military has blamed them for a wave of fresh attacks.
It was unclear who staged this latest assault.
But Bangkok's military government has been unable to bring peace to the south after a junta seized power in a 2014 bloodless coup.
The Islamist rebellion is mostly contained within the southernmost provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala and parts of Songkhla.
Those Muslim-majority areas were part of an independent Muslim sultanate more than 100 years ago before being annexed and exploited for its rubber plantations, offshore fishing industry and other resources.
After attacking security forces, Buddhist temples, commercial property, schools and other targets, insurgents usually escape into the south's jungles and mountains, or slip across the nearby border into Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was army chief when he led the 2014 coup, recently embarked on a strategy of talking with some insurgents to establish a framework for peace.
Those talks involve an umbrella group of rebels collectively known as Mara Patani, or Patani Consultative Council.
Analysts said the talks have floundered because Mara Patani is comprised mostly of elderly rebel leaders and moderates unable to influence the newest generation of guerrillas.
Mara Patani does include some members of the most powerful rebels, the National Revolutionary Front, or Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN).
But a younger, more hardline group appears to have recently taken over the BRN's leadership and they are making stronger demands than the Mara Patani collective.
The recent surge in attacks may be designed to boost the BRN's influence, analysts said.
For example on March 30, a drive-by attack by insurgents on a Narathiwat police station killed one officer and injured five others.
An April 3, an attack by dozens of rebels against a security position in Yala injured 12 police.
A synchronized wave of attacks during the night of April 6-7 hit targets in all four southernmost provinces, damaging electricity units and pylons.
Without claiming responsibility for the attacks, the BRN issued a rare statement on April 10 demanding international observers and an impartial mediator be present for any future peace talks.
Bangkok has refused to "internationalize" the southern insurgency, and previously rejected demands that the United Nations be involved in what Thailand describes as an "internal matter.”
Thailand has deployed about 70,000 security forces in the south, including armed village and civil servant volunteers, police, conscripted troops and career soldiers.
They are fighting against an estimated 10,000 insurgents.
During the past dozen years, guerrillas have exploded nearly 50 car bombs in the four southern provinces, but also attack opponents with shootings, beheadings and arson.
The British embassy and other missions have warned their nationals against visiting Pattani and elsewhere in the rebel-torn south.
Most foreign tourists do not venture to the south and prefer resort areas further north.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978. He graduated from Columbia University's Journalism School and also received Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter about "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest Virtual Reality novel titled, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo," is an immersive three-dimensional, one-hour experience with Oculus Rift technology.
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