The robbery of a gold shop in Na Thawi District of the Southern Thai province of Songkhla on 24 August 2019 looked like a well-planned heist, carried out by professionals.
Without firing a shot, five hooded men wearing body armour and carrying M-16 assault rifles stole about 50 kgs of gold jewellery and gold bars worth about 85 million baht (S$3.8 million) in less than three minutes.
The police quickly identified at least three suspects, including one local man with a long criminal record, Jeh Arong Baheng. Authorities are now also looking into the possibility that this robbery was in fact an operation ordered by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) as a means of raising funds to finance its ongoing separatist campaign in Thailand’s Deep South, with its Malay-Muslim majority. The BRN is flexing its muscles to vie for local support for the separation of the Deep South from the kingdom of Thailand and the formation of a new independent Islamic state.
The police have also linked bombs set off in the Thai capital Bangkok on 1 and 2 August to the BRN. Coinciding with the anniversary of the founding of the BRN on 1 August, these bombings, which slightly wounded a few pedestrians, seem to have been intended to publicise the group’s increased operational capacity.
The police have arrested at least two men from Narathiwat Province in the Deep South and issued arrest warrants for four others, all from that same region. Authorities believe that the bombings – for which the BRN has not claimed responsibility – were aimed chiefly at embarrassing the Thai government while it was hosting in Bangkok the annual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers and their counterparts from ten dialogue-partner countries.
The BRN has also remained silent about the gold shop robbery in Songkhla. However, if the group was behind the robbery, then it is playing a dangerous game. The crime can tarnish the BRN’s reputation as a politically and ideologically driven separatist movement. It will open the eyes of people in the Deep South – especially those of its majority Muslim population – to the changing nature of the struggle there, which has claimed over 7,000 lives in the past 15 years. If indeed separatists are turning to crime, they are perhaps not truly or primarily the helpless victims of abuses of power and state violence on the part of Thai authorities.
More importantly, the gold shop robbery may undermine the oft-repeated narrative of the separatists’ sympathisers in academia and in the international media, that Thai authorities benefitting from increased budgetary allocations to deal with the long-running national security problem in the Deep South have perpetuated the violence there. People can now better understand that the heavily armed separatists do resort to violence, attacking government check-points and killing security personnel. And, when they see the opportunity, they also rob gold shops, banks, and ATM machines.
The continuing violence and unrest in the Deep South make it imperative that the administration of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha look for means of dealing with the chronic security problem there. So far, the on-again, off-again “peace talks” with representatives of separatist groups — in which Malaysia plays the role of the “facilitator” — have not be fruitful.
Prime Minister Prayut might ask Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad whether his government can do more to help Thailand settle the Southern separatist problem peacefully, even as the Thai police now believe that some of the gold shop robbers may have slipped across the border into Malaysia, where they might try to sell the stolen gold.
Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
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