|02/05/04||Panic in Bangkok by Satya Sagar|
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:
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:
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 :
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