Terrorism in Laos: Slow Burn?

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

2015 Bangkok bombing. Why do ethnic separatists in Thailand use bombs and aim for substantial body counts, while ethnic separatists in Laos use small arms and apparently target specific targets?

2015 Bangkok bombing. Why do ethnic separatists in Thailand use bombs and aim for substantial body counts, while ethnic separatists in Laos use small arms and apparently target specific targets?

For decades, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic has contended with a low-intensity insurgency, primarily attributed to two extremist groups – the Ethnic Liberation Organization of Laos and the United Front for the Liberation of Laos – which both pursue through violent means autonomy or independence for the Hmong ethnic minority. Since November 2015, a rash of shootings carried out against tourist buses, Chinese contractors, and Lao military outposts has provoked the State Department in the United States to caution American tourists about the risks of travelling to Laos.

The nature of these terrorist attacks contrasts with those witnessed recently in Thailand. Whereas small arms are typically used to ambush vehicles traversing major roadways between the Laotian capital of Vientiane and Kunming, China, a series of bombs have been detonated in the Thai communities of Hua Hin, Phuket, Surat Thani, and Trang in August 2016, killing four and injuring 34. In August 2015, a bomb was detonated at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand, leaving 20 dead and 125 injured. In December 2013, bombs were detonated in several southern Thai communities, close to the border with Malaysia, resulting in two deaths and 27 injured. The attacks of the previous few years demonstrate the grisly nature of terrorism in Thailand – dramatic bombings in tourist spots or other high-density locations, usually carried out by separatist insurgents from southern Thailand.

Given the similar characteristics and aims of the terrorist groups in Laos and Thailand, why does the modus operandi differ? Why do ethnic separatists in Thailand use bombs and aim for substantial body counts, while ethnic separatists in Laos use small arms and apparently target specific targets? Most likely, the differences in methods between the two reflects the “professionalization” of terrorist groups in Thailand. In previous decades, much of the terrorist activity in Thailand was perpetrated by the National Revolution Front, Runda Kumpulan Kecil, Patani United Liberation Organisation, and the Free Aceh Movement, most of which were dedicated strictly to the secession of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat provinces from the Kingdom of Thailand in order to re-establish the Sultanate of Pattani, a predominantly Sunni Muslim and Malay country until it was gradually annexed by 1909. However, militant Islamist entities have come to the fore of the conflict in southern Thailand, namely Jemaah Islamiyah, the United Mujahideen Front of Pattani, the Pattani Islamic Mujahideen Movement, and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Pattani.

The Golden Triangle between Laos, Thailand and Burma.

The Golden Triangle between Laos, Thailand and Burma.

There is no evidence to suggest that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has established a presence in Thailand, but it is certainly possible that members of the aforementioned militant Islamist groups already operating in the country could have received training and support from ISIS in an effort to intensify the bombing campaign and reduce some of the pressure on ISIS so-called “homeland” in Syria and Iraq. Jemaah Islamiyah would certainly be an ideal proxy for ISIS in the region, given that the organization already has substantial reach and coordination. That group has carried out attacks in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, rising to international prominence in October 2002 when a series of bombs its members planted in the tourist district of Kuta on the Indonesian island of Bali killed 202 and injured 209. Jemaah Islamiyah depended greatly on its partnership with al-Qaeda, while also demonstrating collaborative tendencies by frequently conducting joint training with other Southeast Asia-based terrorist organizations like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid. Finally, Jemaah Islamiyah is currently vulnerable to takeover, given the deaths of certain key members in recent months. In particular, the organization’s leading bomb maker Zulkifli Abdhir was killed in a gun battle with Philippine counter-terrorist troops in January 2015, while bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman was also killed in the Philippines in May 2015 when it seems one of his bodyguards sought to collect the bounty placed on him by the United States.

In short, terrorism in Thailand differs because its perpetrators possess the resources necessary to carry out sophisticated bombings and because the ideology of those who carry out these attacks calls for as large a body count as possible. Terrorism in Laos will not likely “professionalize” in this same way unless there is a convergence of interests in the near future between separatist groups in northern Laos and organized crime. The border regions of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Burma form the so-called “Golden Triangle” where conditions are ripe for opium production and porous borders allow for the trafficking of arms, narcotics, and slave labour. The nightmare scenario for Laos, which currently chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), would involve organized crime networks in China’s Yunnan province supplying arms and bomb-making materials to northern Laotian separatists in an effort to fuel regional instability and secure a new supply of opium, given recent supply disruptions from Burma.

This entry was posted in English, Paul Pryce, Terrorism.

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