On April 28 the so-called global War on Terror arrived in the Land of Smiles with a bloody bang. (Just when I thought I could write glibly about Iraq while sitting in faraway, peaceful Thailand)
That day, the Thai army and police- in a massive display of force- gunned down 107 Muslim ‘terrorists’, mostly young men under 20 years of age, armed with mere machetes. And all that in just one morning’s work.
The incident, dubbed a ‘massacre’ by many, has elevated what was till recently a localized, low-intensity insurgency in a few provinces of southern Thailand into a national and international issue with all kinds of disturbing ramifications. In simple terms Thailand basically shot itself in the foot by trying to achieve a military solution to an essentially solvable, political problem.
Among the immediate consequences of the April 28 events is the heightened possibility of retaliation and real (as opposed to the hitherto imagined) terrorism in different parts of Thailand including the capital city Bangkok. Already some Muslim separatist groups from southern Thailand- long-defunct due to lack of popular support- have begun threatening repayment for the martyrdom of those killed with ‘blood and tears’- warning off foreign travelers from popular tourist destinations in southern Thailand.
Apart from the threat to public security, in what has been one of Asia’s safest countries so far, the unrest in southern Thailand has a long-term implication for the country’s nascent democracy itself. A democracy that was fought for, won and nurtured by an entire generation of student and social activists since the 1970s in the face of stiff opposition from entrenched traditional elites. A major terrorist incident of any kind would encourage sections of the Thai elite- unhappy with the rapid pace of democratic change in recent years- to seek a return to hard-line, ‘law and order first’ regimes from the country’s authoritarian past. Yet another potential case of ‘Goodbye Peace and Democracy, Hello War on Terror’.
If all that sounds too drastic consider these facts:
a) The April 28 death toll in the south of Thailand is easily one of the biggest in the country’s modern history rivaled only by incidents such as the October 14, 1976 massacre of students by right-wing mobs and the May 17, 1992 gunning down of pro-democracy agitators by the Thai army. Both of the two latter incidents mentioned wrought wide-ranging changes in Thai politics the impact of which (both good and bad) continues to this day.
b) Again, despite those ugly incidents in the 1970’s Thailand’s greatest virtue, relative to all its neighbors and indeed rest of Asia, has been the ability of those in power to negotiate and compromise to find peaceful solutions to problems that in other countries provoke full-fledged civil wars. Given a choice between maintaining peace and jettisoning democracy the Thai public, at least in the short run, would opt for the former- a tendency that could be taken advantage of by ambitious power-seekers within the Thai elite.
c) What the Thai authorities are facing in their Muslim dominated southern provinces is a highly motivated, though poorly organized rebellion. The youth who allegedly rushed to attack police outposts on April 28 before they mowed down with machine guns were armed with just machetes and a few low-grade firearms. Machete versus Machine Gun? That’s a suicide mission you are talking about and there are more out there to take the place of those who died.
d) Massive tensions have been building up within the Thai political system for the past four years following the unprecedented, sweeping electoral victory of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecom tycoon turned politician. Thaksin’s authoritarian tendencies and grandiose notions of his own historic mission to change Thailand is ruffling a lot of feathers within the traditional Thai elite, especially Thai royal circles, who see him (and some of those in his cabinet who come from a left background) as a potential threat to the institution of monarchy itself.
e) Despite adhering to many aspects of the neo-liberal paradigm from the past the Thaksin government is essentially a populist regime and way more nationalist than previous Thai governments in terms of its economic policies. Thaksin’s attempts to portray himself as the ‘new Mahatir’ of the ASEAN region is not going down too well with the current US administration that would like a more pliant, client regime in Thailand- just as in the ‘good old days’.
But returning to the unrest in Thailand’s south, what’s really happening? Who are these Thai Muslim youth getting shot in droves? What do they want and why are they willing to kill and die for it ? And very significantly why are there conflicting descriptions of those killed- with the Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra describing them as ‘criminal gangs’ and his Defence Minister General Chetta Thanajaro calling them Muslim separatists?
Broadly the current troubles in southern Thailand are related to:
a) A long history of separatist movements in the four provinces of Yala, Pattani, Satun and Narathiwat, most of which were part of the old Sultanate of Pattani, a previously autonomous region, annexed by Thailand in 1902. The predominantly Muslim and Malay population of these provinces has never fully accepted rule by Buddhist Thailand. Violent separatist insurgencies in the sixties and seventies were sorted out in the early eighties by enlightened Thai government policies that emphasized political over purely military solutions. However, in the late nineties poverty, crime and corruption among Thai officials posted in the south have helped revive the separatist movement.
b) Insensitive, short-sighted policies of successive Thai governments that seek to subsume and homogenize minority cultures, languages and identities under one large, officially cooked-up notion of ‘Thainess’. Inspired largely by the process of fascist nation building adopted by pre-World War Two Japan these policies consist of imposing a uniform educational system, the Thai language and a value system loaded with deep loyalty to the Thai monarchy and other similar institutions on disempowered minority groups all over the country. While there has been some resistance to this also from other minority groups like the Lao-speaking populations of north-east Thailand and the numerous hill tribe groups in northern Thailand it has met greatest opposition in southern Thailand from a Muslim populace proud of its past as the centre of Islam in south-east Asia.
c) A complex struggle for power between various Thai institutions particularly the traditional elite consisting of the monarchy and political forces close to it versus the ‘new elite’ made up of business lobbies that support the current Thaksin Shinawatra government. Muddying the scenario further is the historical rivalry between the Thai army and police which have always competed for portions of a shrinking national security budget as well as opportunities for enhancing personal income through various corrupt practices. In mid-2001 the Thaksin government inexplicably transferred all responsibility for security in the southern provinces from the hands of the Thai army to the Thai police, sparking off what some say is a ‘turf war’ for control of the lucrative guns and drugs trade along Thailand’s southern borders between the two agencies.
As if this were not an already complicated situation the Thaksin government has foolishly succumbed to pressures from the United States to join its bogus global ‘War on Terror’ turning off Muslim populations within and outside its borders. Apart from sending troops to Iraq, the current Thai government also actively cooperated with the FBI’s arrest and abduction, last October, of Hambali, the alleged mastermind behind the Bali bombings. (This in a country that harbored Pol Pot and his men for nearly two decades and has repeatedly refused to extradite those wanted for terrorist attacks in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam)
Worse still, there is strong evidence that the Thai government, in a bid to impress George Bush Jr., on the eve of his visit to Bangkok for the APEC meet in October last year, also stage-managed the arrest of so-called ‘terrorists’ allegedly trying to put together and set off a ‘dirty radioactive bomb’. Interviews with the suspected ‘terrorists’ in the Thai media suggested that they were victims of a frame-up by the Thai intelligence to score brownie points with their US counterparts.
Having said all this it must be pointed out that the level of violence and methods adopted by the miniscule separatist movement in southern Thailand is completely unacceptable. Since the beginning of January this year there has been almost daily violence in the southern provinces that has seen the murders of over 117 government and police officials, school teachers and even Buddhist monks (hacked to death with machetes). There has been particular brutality to these murders that seems to be the work of bigoted religious fanatics rather than militants with a purely political cause.
Many of those carrying out these attacks are young boys, brainwashed no-doubt by some ideologues in their religious schools, armed and trained by separatist outfits mostly based in neighboring Malaysia. These youth trying to attack police and army posts in such large numbers could not have materialized without some kind of organized force behind them (who must be raving mad to send them out with machetes to fight machine guns!). There is also some evidence of Islamic politicians in Malaysia funding these separatists and providing political support.
Are the Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups other involved in all this? Good question, over to you Dick Cheney. Sorry, I was trying to mimic George Bush Jr. there- but the answer to that question really lies in what one means by international terrorist groups. The Jemaah Islamiyah, a loose network of Islamic fundamentalist groups in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines has always included southern Thailand as part of their dream of a unified Muslim ‘homeland’ in Southeast Asia. There is however no evidence of Al Qaeda presence in southern Thailand.
Like in so many other parts of the world, the real global network of terror implicated in the rise of conservative Muslim forces in southern Thailand is the chain of ‘Madrasas’ funded by the close US ‘ally’ Saudi Arabia in countries like Pakistan and some middle-eastern nations. Throughout the eighties and nineties scores of Thai Muslims have been through these religious schools that promote Wahabism, that peculiarly anti-modern trend in modern Islam.
Aware of both the domestic and global implications of continued unrest in southern Thailand the Thai Prime Minister has been attempting to impose a military solution to the problem while claiming that that it is all the work of ‘criminal gangs’. Accepting the presence of an organized separatist movement he feels would bring unwanted international attention and also expose him to attacks from opposition political parties to the charge of incompetence in handling the situation politically.
What the Thaksin government urgently needs to do now to defuse the situation and prevent things from spinning out of control is to implement the recommendations made by one its own Deputy Prime Ministers (there are four of them !) Chaturon Chaiseng, a former student activist turned mainstream politician. According to Chaturon’s seven-point plan, announced in early April, the Thai government should :
a) Lift martial law imposed on the four Muslim provinces since the beginning of the year,
b) Grant amnesties to those arrested on mere suspicion of being ‘terrorists’
c) Review a government plan to regulate traditional Islamic religious schools and instead extend financial support to them
d) Hire more locals into educational and other government run institutions
e) Replace police sent from Bangkok to the southern provinces by local recruits
f) Involve local populations in a proposed 12 billion baht (300 million US dollars) project to remove poverty and create jobs in these provinces.
The Chaturon plan was shelved by Thaksin Shinawatra who caved in to pressure from sections of the Thai police who opposed it because they felt they were being blamed for the unrest in the southern provinces. Following the events of April 28 Shinawatra now has only a slender chance of winning back the trust of Thailand’s Muslim minorities and what will make the difference is good politics and not his brute police force.
Only a drastic turnaround in the government’s approach to the entire problem can prevent Thailand from becoming a self-toppled domino in the global War on Terror.
Satya Sagar is a journalist based in Thailand. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org