Attacks in Thailand's deep south: Who, why and what's next?

Burst of violence deepens concerns the situation in the conflict-hit region could deteriorate in the coming months.

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    Attacks in Thailand's deep south: Who, why and what's next?
    Gunmen on Friday shot and killed two Buddhist monks and wounded two others in the latest violent attack to hit Narathiwat [Surapan Boonthanom/Reuters]

    Bangkok, Thailand - In the latest of a series of fatal attacks in Thailand's southernmost provinces, a group of assault rifle-wielding attackers on Friday stormed a Buddhist temple, killing two monks and wounding two others.

    The evening assault took place at Wat Rattananupab temple in Su Ngai Padi district of Narathiwat province, an area located in the heart of Thailand's deep south where ethnic Malay separatists have been waging an armed campaign for independence for decades.

    According to local reports, the attacker rolled up on motorcycles spraying the entrance to the temple before sprinting inside to target the Buddhist monks up close.

    Among those killed was the temple's abbot, Sawang Vethmaha, also known as Phra Khru Prachote.

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    A police manhunt for the attackers in under way, but Lieutenant General Pornsak Poolsawat, the army commander, has asked for more security at temples scattered throughout the region.

    Authorities have also encouraged all monks in the southern province to stay inside their temples following the shooting, which capped a day of bombings across the area that left five soldiers wounded.

    Addressing the assault on the Buddhist temple, Government Spokesperson Buddhipongse Punnakanta said that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha "denounced such a brazen attack and instructed officials to investigate and find the assailants to punish them."

     

    'War crime'

    Human Rights Watch (HRW) has continued to condemn the violence, particularly the most active fundamentalist group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), for repeatedly targeting civilians and places of worship.

    "The ghastly attack on Buddhist monks by insurgents in Thailand's deep south is morally reprehensible and a war crime, and those responsible should be held to account," Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director, said.

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    "The insurgents' 15-year campaign of deliberately attacking Buddhist and Muslim civilians can't be justified."

    But in Thailand's deep south, these kinds of attacks are not uncommon, with hundreds of violent incidents coming out of the restive region last year.

    Earlier this month, on January 8, separatists orchestrated two different assaults on the same day.

    The first attack was aimed at a school and a hospital, wounding a 12-year-old student and a soldier standing guard at the school.

    The second assault occurred when a car bomb rocked Songkhla province's Thepa district, wounding a police medic.

    A monk looks at bullet holes on the site of Friday's attack [Surapan Boonthanom/Reuters]

    What's behind this latest wave of attacks?

    Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand in HRW's Asia division, told Al Jazeera the latest burst of violence is likely a response to a recent assassination of a purported BRN leader. Doloh Sarai, 62, was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen while riding home on a motorcycle in Narathiwat's Rue Soh district.

    "Thai authorities alleged that he was a BRN leader," Phasuk said, adding that Sarai had previously been arrested on security charges.

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    The military has developed tactics that some are criticising as excessively punitive. Over the years, rights groups such as HRW have called against extrajudicial killings of suspected fighters and encouraged security responses that would reduce collateral damage. 

    It's also becoming clear that fighters in the mainly-Muslim south are losing patience with Thailand's military government, according to Zach Abuza, a specialist on the conflict and professor at National War College in Washington, DC.

    He said the BRN is frustrated that Thailand's military government has refused to make any compromises, particularly after progress in 2013 when the last democratically elected government appeared to be willing to finally grant them concessions, including language reforms and general amnesties.

    "The army said that the talks broke down because of the political protests and stasis that began in the fall of 2013, leading to the May 2014 coup, but the reality is the army had already put the kibosh on the talks," Abuza told Al Jazeera.

    "The junta has kept the talks open, but they do not negotiate in earnest."

    What's likely to happen next?

    Deep South Watch, a widely respected monitoring group that tracks separatism-related attacks coming out of the region, documented 548 incidents of violence that resulted in 218 deaths last year.

    The figure was actually lower compared with previous years, but the latest bout of violence, coupled with the impasse in negotiations, has deepened concerns that the situation could deteriorate in the coming months.

    Earlier this month, the BRN released a statement vowing to "keep fighting", declaring they would ramp up attacks and attempt to recruit more members to join their struggle.

    The military and local police are bracing for more attacks raising security measures in preparation.

    "The Thai state can help break this vicious cycle of deadly retaliation by ending the use of extrajudicial tactics in counterinsurgency operations and hold abusive troops accountable for their crimes," Phasuk said.

    The conflict has killed about 7,000 people since 2004, according to Deep South Watch.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News