Dealing with an unrest

Print edition : December 03, 2004

The Thai government's actions against the Islamic insurgents in the south of the country cause concern in the South-East Asian neighbourhood.

in Singapore

Thai soldiers with the men they apprehended after demonstrators clashed with the police outside a police station in Narathiwat province nearly 1,150 km south of Bangkok.-REUTERS

IT is somewhat unusual for a founder-member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) like Thailand to have to defend its internal policies on the wider regional stage. Thailand, which is now trying to place the unrest in some of its southern provinces in the wider context of international terrorism, has not really been asked by ASEAN to answer questions. However, not since Myanmar's action against the celebrated democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi in 2003 has an ASEAN member come into the regional focus over a domestic issue. And Myanmar is not an original member of ASEAN.

Thailand's current visibility, on account of its handling of issues in a restive part of its territory, has to do as much with the issues at stake as with the political style of its assertive Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The latest cause for concern, both in Thailand and outside, is the manner in which at least 85 people are estimated to have been killed during various stages of the action that Thai security forces took in order to quell a protest, on October 25, by some local militiamen at a police station in the Narathiwat province in the south. The initial causes of the riot were reckoned to be popular anger against the arrest of some other militiamen and a violent bid by the protesters to secure the release of those in custody.

While the exact identities of these militiamen have not been fully known, Thai authorities tend to look upon the latest episode of unrest as another manifestation of the separatist tendencies among Muslims of a few southern provinces in the predominantly Buddhist country.

While at least six protesters were killed during the riot itself (although security officials denied that they made any direct shooting), 80 or more others died later, as a result of suffocation, when an estimated 1,300 protesters were huddled together and transported in just a few vehicles for detention at a military camp.

For well over a year now, Thaksin has maintained that insurgent activities in southern Thailand have political and logistical links with international terrorism. It was during the run-up to an Asia-Pacific summit in Bangkok in October 2003 that Thaksin first acknowledged that the trail of international `Islamic' terrorists could be seen across Thailand.

Prior to that admission, he was accused of adopting an ostrich-like attitude, one of ignoring the presence of such terrorists in Thailand or their passage through the country. The key questions raised now relate to their existence in Thailand and the extent to which the Thai "insurgents" are connected with the Jemaah Islamiyah (J.I.), regarded by intelligence officials as Al Qaeda's affiliate in South-East Asia.

Thailand having begun to regard itself as a frontline state in the United States-led `campaign' against global terrorism, the Thaksin administration's handling of the latest crisis will be watched closely across South-East Asia.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra at the Tak Bai temple in Narathiwat province for a robe-giving rite. In the background is a portrait of King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, the present monarch.-ADREES LATIF/REUTERS

Malaysia, which shares a border with the restive parts of southern Thailand, was quick to issue an advisory against travel to the affected areas. While making the announcement of an area-specific selective ban until further notice, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Najib Razak clarified that the intention was not to raise an alarm about the "unstable" conditions in the affected areas.

Thailand and Muslim-majority Malaysia have been cooperating, for some time now, to develop the economies of the border areas on either side. Maintaining that those projects would not be held up, Najib underlined Malaysia's desire to sustain its policy of cooperating with Bangkok to promote security and development across Thailand. It was noted, too, that the unrest in southern Thailand had not had any spill-over effect in Malaysia.

Concern over the developments in Thailand was expressed in Indonesia, the country which has the world's largest Muslim population and which is the most populous in the ASEAN fold, as also in other countries of the region. However, if ASEAN has not pressured Thailand in the same manner as it did in the case of Myanmar, Thaksin can thank his own proactive diplomacy on the regional scene.

The poignancy of the circumstances in which the latest killings occurred cannot be forgotten easily, and this is an aspect that Bangkok will have to guard against in its continuing battle against `Islamic insurgency'. In all, over 400 people, including local monks and others belonging to the majority community of Buddhists, are estimated to have lost their lives in southern Thailand since January, when "insurgents" raided a military camp. The episodic violence that hit international headlines prior to the latest tragedy was a dramatic shoot-out in April, involving "insurgents" and the security forces.

THAI territory has long been suspected to have served as a safe passage for some regional and extra-regional terrorist organisations, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. At a respectable political level, the northeastern part of Thailand served as a safe haven for the legendary Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam during his anti-French struggle in the 1920s.

As for the terrorist angle, the general refrain of the Thai authorities, until Thaksin's recent move of placing his country in the "anti-terror camp" of the U.S., was that Bangkok had nothing to fear as long as the suspect groups did not harm Thailand's vital interests of peace and tranquillity at home. In this sense, the activities of the Muslim-separatist groups in southern Thailand, such as the Pattani United Liberation Organisation and the United Front for the Independence of Pattani, were seen by Bangkok as being different from the use of the Thai territory for safe passage by external guerilla groups.

With Thaksin having now recognised the possibility of links between these groups in Pattani province and the J.I., especially after the dramatic arrest of J.I. leader Riduan bin Isomoddin alias Hambali in a U.S.-led operation inside Thailand in August 2003, the qualitative focus of the authorities on these Thai outfits has acquired a new dimension and intensity.

The issues of separatism in southern Thailand have come to be seen by Bangkok, and not so much by the "insurgents" themselves, in the wider context of its equation with Washington. Relevant to this new development are the emerging opinions about the basic thrust of Thai politics on the external and internal fronts. Thailand's strategic experts such as Chookiat Panaspornprasit have argued that Thaksin's action of deploying over 400 persons - technicians, doctors and even some frontline command officers and security personnel - in occupied Iraq had more to do with the "close Thai-U.S. relationship than any humanitarian assistance" to the Iraqi people.

As for the country's internal dynamics, long-time observers of the Thai political scene such as Duncan McCargo have pointed out how "the popular sector had been empowered and emboldened" since the promulgation of a new Constitution in 1997.

It is in this overall context that the discontented people in southern Thailand require not only economic development in their region but also a sense of political participation that might enable them to give shape to their "Islamic identity" in an overall Buddhist environment.

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