Conflict & Justice

Thailand: insurgents' bigger, bolder bombs


Thai firemen carry an injured man after a fire at the Lee Gardens Hotel in downtown Hat Yai, Thailand on March 31, 2012.


Meriking Tuan Daniya

Last summer, while reporting on the increasingly sophisticated bomb techniques of Islamic insurgents in Thailand, I asked a separatist figure how militants became so handy with explosives.

His reponse?

“Google ... our young people are clever enough. You just Google it: ‘How To Make a Bomb.'"

But I don't think Google can't offer the skill set needed to pull off yesterday's car bomb in the city of Hat Yai (translation: Big Beach) that killed at least 14 and wounded more than 350 people. (That's the latest casualty tally from the Bangkok Post.)

This is a death toll that evokes Pakistan more than the tropical southernmost reaches of Thailand, where roadside bomb strikes are more likely to kill fewer than two or three people in one go.

But the insurgents, hoping to drive ethnic Thais from a lost Malay-speaking sultanate on the Thai-Malay border, have become increasingly adept at bombmaking. Just eight years ago, they were still relying largely on amateur nail bombs. They have since graduated to car bombs and roadside explosives that can shred passing pick-up trucks.

This attack -- which left a KFC and a Sizzler choked in black smoke -- is not just fearsome in its ferocity.

The location is perhaps even more worrying.

Hat Yai is a popular transit point for travelers of all walks heading to Thailand's crystal-sand beaches. By all accounts, the insurgency doesn't seek dominion over this city. But through an airport, the city links their turf to Bangkok -- the heart of the modern Thai state -- as do rail lines that insurgents have torn up in the past. 

The last major bombing in Hat Yai was a full six years ago, killed four people and targeted a similarly crowded area. But the busy trading town, the region's largest, is typically left alone.

The insurgency has clearly developed the bombmaking sophistication needed to take out lives in the double digits.

The concern now is that separatists will chose to place more heavy explosives in crowded districts outside their claimed Connecticut-sized territory. This would not only frighten tourists and traders away from the so-called "deep south" -- where most are too scared to travel anyway -- and but cast fear over a broader area in Thailand.

Said Human Rights Watch researcher Sunai Phasuk on Twitter: "Insurgents who bombed Yala and Hat Yai know they will kill and maim numerous civilians. This is not armed struggle but a sickening crime."