By Satya Sagar
08 May, 2004
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
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
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
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
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
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
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