BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand's military-backed government on Monday pledged tighter security in the south after a binge of bombings and shootings by suspected Muslim insurgents killed eight people and wounded almost 70.
The onslaught began Sunday night as thousands were celebrating Lunar New Year, and an army spokesman said the insurgents were trying to scare ethnic Chinese who celebrate the holiday into fleeing the predominantly Muslim region.
The authorities said 29 bombings and 20 other attacks rocked the country's four southernmost provinces Sunday night.
The violence continued Monday as bombs exploded at four locations in the south, killing one army major and wounding two soldiers, three policemen and 13 civilians, officials said.
In the latest violence, five people were hurt when a bomb triggered by a mobile phone exploded Monday evening next to a karaoke parlor in the capital district of Narathiwat province, police said.
Also on Monday evening, two soldiers assigned to protect schoolteachers were wounded in an ambush as they were returning from carrying out their duty, police said. The shootings brought the number of wounded to 69 over a 24-hour period.
Sunday's attacks were the first time the insurgents had simultaneously struck all four southern provinces — Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani and Songkhla — where they operate, said army spokesman Col. Akara Thiprote.
More than 2,000 people have died in the four provinces since the insurgency erupted in 2004, fueled by accusations of decades of misrule by the central government. The insurgents have not announced their goals, but are believed to be fighting for a separate state imbued with radical Islamic ideology.
"The insurgents wanted to scare away Chinese businessmen from the region. That's why they attacked on Sunday, the day that Chinese people celebrate after they pay homage to their ancestors. The insurgents do not want people of other religions to live with them," Akara said. Ethnic Chinese in southern Thailand are mostly Buddhists and Taoists.
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont met with top security officials on Monday and urged heightened security in the area ahead of upcoming public holidays including a Buddhist holiday in March and the Thai New Year known as Songkran, celebrated in mid-April.
"He emphasized preparation for situations like this. There are loopholes in the cities that make it possible for the insurgents to attack and we must close these loopholes," said Montri Sangkasab, secretary-general of the Internal Security Operations Command counterinsurgency agency.
More closed-circuit cameras would be installed at strategic locations, he said, without giving details.
Surayud also instructed security agencies to focus on tracing the explosives used in the bombs, Montri said.
Army commander Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin said more military reinforcements would be sent to the south, according to the state Thai News Agency.
But he said there would be no need to impose a curfew on the area, according to the news agency.
The attacks were the second wave of bombings Thailand has faced in recent months. Bangkok was struck by a series of eight explosions on Dec. 31, although authorities said southern insurgents were not responsible. Three people were killed and almost 40 wounded.
Triggered by digital watches, most of Sunday's bombs were set to explode between 7:15 p.m. and 8 p.m., said army spokesman Col. Akara Thiprote. The targets were karaoke lounges, hotels, schools, gasoline stations and power grids. He said the bombs each weighed 3 to 5 kilograms (6.6 to 11 pounds).
Three people of Chinese descent were gunned down in Pattani, another person was shot and killed in Narathiwat, while bombs at a karaoke parlor in the tourist town of Betong on the Malaysian border killed two others, Akara said. One other person died at a hospital on Monday as a result of an overnight blast in Narathiwat.
The violence near the Malaysian border continued Monday morning when a homemade bomb killed a Thai army major near his home in Yala province and wounded a 7-year-old boy, provincial police chief Maj. Gen. Phaitoon Chuchaiya said.
In Narathiwat, police said three officers were wounded by a bomb explosion Monday as their eight-man patrol neared a small railway station in Rue So district. The bomb, planted on the station roof, was reportedly triggered by a mobile telephone signal.
In the capital of Pattani, police reported seven people were wounded when a bomb went off in a car sales showroom.
Violence in the south has been escalating in recent months despite a major policy shift by the military-imposed government, which is trying to replace an earlier iron-fisted approach with a campaign to win the "hearts and minds" of locals.