Are Thailand’s counter-terrorism measures effective?

Photo: Government of Thailand/Wikimedia Commons
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Thailand needs to strengthen counter-terrorism mechanisms further to address new threats.

By Sirisha Veera, Edited by Isabel Yeo

Thailand has been no stranger to acts of terrorism. Since its first major terrorist attack in 1972, it has been a victim of multiple attacks by both international terrorist organisations and local outfits formed by its disgruntled ethnic minorities.

Source: The Bangkok Post, BBC News, The GuardianScribd

In recent years, Thailand had attempted to upgrade its security infrastructure. The Thais had formulated counter-terrorism strategies and developed practical guidelines to prevent future attacks. They had also participated in joint counter-terrorism initiatives with other countries.

However, the laws established were not enforced effectively, limiting Thailand’s counterterrorism efforts. A lack of resources had also hindered counter-terrorism efforts in Thailand.

In response to global terror attacks, Thailand had stepped up its counter-terrorism measures

After the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001, the Thai government created the Counter Terrorism Operations Centre (CTOC) in affiliation with the Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters. CTOC is a body that proposes National Action Plans, coordinating counter-terrorism measures across various agencies like Customs Department and the Royal Thai Navy.

Thailand also addressed the issue of terrorism in its legislature. In 2003, the Thai government criminalised terrorism. It’s National Security Policy has since included counter-terrorism strategies.  Thailand has also established anti-money laundering laws to prevent terrorist groups from receiving financial support. The Bank of Thailand has also alerted the Royal Thai Police upon discovering illegal transactions to known terrorist groups.

It has also developed numerous anti-terror initiatives with other nations

In 2001, Thailand adopted the ASEAN Declaration on Joint Action to Counter Terrorism. It promised to strengthen its domestic counter-terrorism efforts and enhance cooperation with other countries at the bilateral and regional level.

Beyond ASEAN, Thailand had coordinated with countries such as the U.S and India to strengthen the fight against terrorism. In January 2016, on a visit to India, the Prime Minister of Thailand recognised that there was a need for India and Thailand to coordinate their counter-terrorism strategies. A statement released by the Government of India stated that “the two leaders unequivocally condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and agreed to work together in building a new global resolve and strategy for combating terrorism.”

Thailand also collaborated with U.S intelligence in a sting operation that saw Hambali, a significant figure in Al-Qaeda’s Asia wing, apprehended at Ayutthaya in August 2003. To improve border security, officers from the Royal Thai Police also underwent training conducted by the U.S State Department. On paper, Thailand seemed to have quite a comprehensive counter-terrorism framework.

Thailand’s counter-terrorism efforts were not as robust in reality  

According to the U.S. State Department, Thai prosecutors failed to convict some terror suspects as they were unable to prove their intent of terrorism. Defendants were prosecuted on lesser charges or deported if they were foreign nationals. While the Thais were supposed to have tightened security at the borders, the traveller screening process had loopholes. Thailand’s thriving document forgery industry  has helped terrorists fool border officials, allowing them to move in and out of the country.

The Thais did not always have a coherent response to terrorist attacks – as evident during the August 2015 Erawan Shrine bombing that killed almost 20 people and injured 125 others. The Thai government was uncertain about who the perpetrators were and had initially tried to pin the blame on the Red Shirt movement. When the Thai police eventually caught the two perpetrators, both of whom were ethnic Uighurs, the Thai police suggested that they were human traffickers hoping to avenge a crackdown on their network. The international media was unconvinced by this explanation.

The Thai government also seemed incapable of resolving the insurgency in South Thailand. Insurgents claiming to fight on behalf of minority Muslim rights had engaged acts of terrorism throughout their campaign, including a recent bombing in Pattani. As of May 2017, the insurgency had claimed approximately 6,000 lives since it first began. Although the insurgency has been ongoing for the past 13 years, none of Thailand’s counter-terrorism outfits seemed to be actively dealing with this issue. The prolonged nature of the conflict reflected poorly on Thailand’s ability to deal with established insurgent groups.

By working with regional neighbours, Thailand can strengthen its counter-terrorism credentials

Thailand needs to ensure that its policies are as promising in reality as they are on paper. While its pursuit of joint-initiatives with other countries is commendable, its track record suggests there is still more to be done. Resolving the long-running South Thailand Insurgency should be a priority for the Thai government. Clamping down on the counterfeit documents market is also necessary.

Thailand can also explore how it can build upon the nascent integrated ASEAN counter-terrorism framework laid out in the 2007 ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism. While Thailand has been actively hosting regional workshops on strategies to combat terrorism, some issues have yet to be improved. For one, military cooperation between member states is still lacking. The Thai military cannot address the problem of terrorism by itself. Terrorism is a transnational problem. Thus, its solution needs to be of a transnational nature as well.

Terrorist attacks might be unpredictable by nature, but with adequate counter-terrorism initiatives, they need not be. Hopefully, the list of terror attacks on Thai soil no longer lengthens afterwards.