Bali's agony, Thailand's turmoil

About the author
Jan McGirk is an investigative journalist based in Jerusalem, where she now conducts research on conflict resolution.

The suicide bombs that ripped through the Balinese tourist resorts of Jimbaran Bay and Kuta on 1 October, killing nineteen innocent people and wounding ninety (most of them Indonesians) are the latest in a series of attacks over the past four years that have been attributed to the militant Islamist group, Jemaah Islamiah.

The most deadly was the October 2002 bombing in Bali which killed 202 people from twenty-four countries (the largest number being Australian), followed over the next two years by two Jakarta attacks: a car-bomb in August 2003 that killed twelve and a suicide car-bomb outside the Australian embassy in September 2004 that killed eleven. The arrest and conviction of fifty-four alleged Jemaah Islamiah operatives for these three incidents have not, it seems, prevented the group from maintaining its coherence and pursuing its strategy.

The renewed assault on Bali, its tourist industry and employees as well as foreign visitors, comes in the wake of an escalation in the insurgency in three provinces of southern Thailand – Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat – bordering on Malaysia.

No respite in Thailand

When on 21 September a mob in the village of Tanyonglimo, Narathiwat province, tied together, blindfolded, and bludgeoned to death two marines whom they accused of being undercover government hitmen, ordinary Thais across the nation voiced their indignation and despair. Tanyonglimo had turned on two of its peacekeepers and tortured them for nineteen hours. After envoys had failed to negotiate their freedom, security troops – previously unwilling to go against the wishes of more than 500 villagers – ultimately were forced to break down a door beside the mosque to retrieve their dead comrades. Before the blood could dry, the brutality of these murders reverberated across southeast Asia.

Also on Bali, Thailand, and the “war on terror” in southeast Asia in openDemocracy:

Tani Bhargava, “Travelling by sun-bird: Bali in Indian sight” (October 2002)

Pere Vilanova, “Indonesian democracy: lessons for the west” (September 2004)

Jan McGirk, “Bambi vs Godzilla in Thailand” (April 2005)

Jan McGirk, “Bali’s message of dialogue” (August 2005) – this article contains the full text of the interfaith “Bali Declaration” of July 2005

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

Malaysia immediately reinforced security on its northern border, fearing a spillover of violence, and urged regional leaders to help calm the unrest on Thailand's frontier. But Bangkok insists that these troubles are strictly an internal matter and warns outsiders to keep out of the fray.

The prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, followed up his speech to this effect at the United Nations world summit on 14-16 September with a thunderous broadcast on his weekly radio show: "The people who create unrest are very cruel and inhuman; they are worse than wild animals. I have to order tough action against these cruel killers and bring them to justice". After scouring the crime scene for forensic evidence, government authorities quickly issued thirty-six arrest warrants, at least five for women; more than a dozen villagers who surrendered to the authorities were whisked to “re-education camps”.

Such grisly new tactics look bound to increase the bloodshed in Thailand's Muslim-majority south, the only region in the country where Buddhists are outnumbered by four-to-one. Analysts fear that this incident may prove to be the tipping-point of the festering separatist insurgency in Thailand's three southernmost provinces. At least 1,000 people have died in the conflict since January 2004, when raiders looted army posts for weapons, set government schools ablaze, and reignited the movement for a separate Muslim homeland.

Even Lukman B Lima, the greying vice-chairman of the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), a banned political group long considered defunct, has re-emerged to issue threats from Jakarta. He warned that Bangkok or “decadent” beach resorts like Pattaya or Phuket might be targeted next.

Such threats are being taken seriously after the Bali attacks, for Jemaah Islamiah militants may already be inspiring the Thai insurgents and helping them mount assaults like the pipe-bomb explosions at Hat Yai international airport in April.

General Kitti Rattanachaya, Thaksin's former military adviser, complains that the government has ignored his repeated warnings that hardened fighters from Aceh province are sneaking across the Andaman Sea into southern Thailand. There is no evidence to support his claims – and Thaksin remains adamant that insurgents have not sought help from Islamist militant networks outside the country – although it is likely that, following the post-tsunami peace accord that ended Aceh's twenty-nine-year-old civil war in August 2005, surplus weapons will find their way to Thailand.

Beheadings, bombs and drive-by shootings now are everyday atrocities in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat provinces. The very persistence of violence has meant that grim statistics have lost much of their shock value. The victims have come from all ranks of society: Buddhist monks, Muslim clerics, judges, schoolteachers, footballers, shopkeepers, postmen.

After a sniper killed an ice-cream vendor on the street, popsicle-sellers ditched their uniforms to prevent being mistaken for paramilitaries. Army helicopters swoop over the rubber plantations nightly and humvees lumber past sodden groves where unpicked fruit rots on the trees. Bazaars shutter early and nightlife is only a memory. Teachers at vulnerable government schools feel particularly under threat; many have demanded pistol permits (and time for target-practice) or else a transfer to safer areas in the north.

The Tanyonglimo incident

The standoff at Ban Tanyonglimo began like scores of other recent drive-by shootings in Thailand's “deep south”. Around 9pm on a somnolent Tuesday evening, a white pickup truck slowed and a pair of gunmen, their faces masked, sprayed bullets into a teahouse. Two of the six wounded customers who were carted off to the hospital died.

Witnesses said that moments after the shots, two young marines wearing plain clothes blundered into the chaos. A sub-lieutenant, Winai Nakhabut, and a petty officer, Khamthon Thong-iat, had pulled up in an unmarked car with an assault rifle slung in the backseat. Some claim their motor stalled just as a military cap found on the street provoked a frenzied response. Vigilantes assumed that this was a two-man death squad – like the one which tried to assassinate the local imam in June. They wrested the pair from their car and took them captive.

Other witnesses told police they watched the assailants' pickup drive away, but that villagers kidnapped the marines as a means to press for a formal investigation into the shoot-out.

In any case, perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Tanyonglimo's hostage drama was that it quickly turned into a village affair, involving a throng of civilians that ranged in age from toddlers to grandmothers. Not all could be branded hot-headed jihadist militants. Instead of hiding indoors, braced for the inevitable reprisal killings, hundreds of Muslim women wearing headscarves blockaded Tanyonglimo's only road and impeded rescue attempts. As government troops tried to converge on the central mosque, women squatted in the dust overnight and all the next day to guard it.

Their demands for foreign media to be rushed to the scene stalled negotiations for hours. Placards in two languages, Thai and Malay, were displayed on the roadside for the cameramen. "It's not us, it's you!" raged one sign in Thai, while a poster scrawled in Malay pleaded for answers.

Unsolved crimes like the teashop murders routinely get attributed to security forces or policemen. Under Thaksin’s latest emergency decree, law-enforcers cannot be prosecuted for rights violations in the south and residents are suspicious of such impunity. Locals also are increasingly hostile to reporters who cannot communicate in the regional dialect, Yawi.

Ever since seventy-eight unarmed Muslim protestors were killed by suffocation in military custody in October 2004, fewer people have been willing to speak out in public. No one wants to risk being blacklisted as a collaborator by government authorities or an informer by Islamist militants, so nuance in reporting is crucial. There is scant trust for journalists who cultivate security officers as their main news sources and then broadcast on radio networks owned by the Thai army or on television channels controlled by cohorts of the powerful prime minister – a former policeman who earned his billions through a family telecommunications empire and is notoriously thin-skinned about any criticism.

A handful of reporters who could understand the dialect eventually were located, but by the time they arrived in the mid-afternoon glare, it was too late. The hostages had been scalded, knifed and beaten to death with iron staves and sledgehammers while the elders went next door to pray.

"I asked the men to take good care of the soldiers and let them eat lunch. This terrible incident should not have happened”, Moh, a 60-year-old matriarch, told Paris Lord of Agence France Presse. She described how mayhem broke out when a stranger grabbed the mosque's microphone and shouted a false warning that the military would launch a sneak attack through the rubber trees.

This was the second time Muslim women have resorted to civil disobedience tactics in Narathiwat. Holding hands with their children, scores of defiant housewives had formed a ring around the hamlet of Ban Lahan in late August, the day after government agents were blamed for gunning down Satopa Yuso, their imam. Before dying, the cleric had identified his assailants. Villagers proclaimed that this "liberated zone" would henceforth be off-limits to the Thai military.

On 30 August, 131 people reconsidered this show of strength and slipped across the Malay border in fear of reprisals. The United Nations has since launched an investigation into their complaints, and Malaysia has refused to turn them over to Thai authorities.

The response of Thai authorities to Ban Tanyonglimo has involved both symbolism and stringent security measures. After the killings, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn tenderly bathed the corpses of the two martyred marines, a sombre ritual that underlined the concern of the royal family. Hundreds of military families paid respects. Since then, her mother, Queen Sirikit, has temporarily moved her court to Narathiwat Palace in a show of unity. Meanwhile, the government presses ahead with plans to issue high-tech national-identity cards, with fingerprints embedded electronically, to all Thais – starting with residents of the three violence-torn provinces.

The people of Ban Tanyonglimo, after nearly two years of random violence under martial law, themselves have taken desperate measures to identify the faceless enemy behind all the killings in the south. Thaksin has variously blamed the bloodletting on bandits, drug-runners' vendettas, and brainwashed Islamist militants. Denial, followed by backlash, has been the pattern of government response.

A climate of fear

In December 2004, Thaksin demanded that Thai schoolchildren and civil servants fold up 100 million origami cranes in a bizarre scheme to "peace bomb" the south with flocks of Buddhist good wishes. At the same time, arms are supplied to civilian vigilante groups. An approach that the prime minister characterises as "an iron fist in a velvet glove" leaves little room for dialogue.

Anand Panyarachun, the former prime minister who heads the government's National Reconciliation Commission set up in March 2005, emphasises the poverty and alienation in a region which formed part of an Islamic sultanate barely a century ago, before the British carved up the Malay kingdoms of Pattani and Kedah. Average income is just half that of Thailand's more developed central provinces, which benefit from their rice and textile exports, and investment continues to lag because of the strife.

As security deteriorates, the resentment of the Muslim underclass is growing. Because Thai rubber-tappers now are too intimidated to work in the dark, when the trees yield is highest, they have missed out on the latest rubber boom. Rival Indonesian and Malaysian firms secure lucrative contracts with China because they are not plagued by interruptions or production shortfalls.

Anand estimates that close to 10,000 rebels are at large in the south – "a miniscule proportion of the Muslim population of 4 million". Their techniques include posting photocopied leaflets to lamposts or trees (reminiscent of the Taliban "night letters" sporadically issued in Pakistan's border towns) and issuing death threats to anyone who tampers with these menacing messages.

One such poster recently warned catfish vendors who neglect to close shop on Fridays (the Islamic day of worship) that they can expect their ears to be sliced off. Another reportedly called for locals to shun reconciliation attempts by non-Muslim outsiders ("Siamese colonialists") who favour gambling and prostitution; “a dog is still a dog, even if it befriends a goat", it admonished.

Local issues dominate the propaganda; there's no mention of Jemaah Islamiah's vision of an Islamic superstate merging Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the southern Philippines, and southern Thailand. Thailand’s forces routinely detain anyone caught with one of these leaflets at a checkpoint and strenuously blocks Islamist websites calling for jihad or support for the insurgency.

The torrid provinces near the Malaysian frontier, far from Bangkok, have long been a dumping-ground for corrupt officials caught with their hands in the till elsewhere. Smugglers of narcotics, underage prostitutes, undocumented workers, firearms, or endangered exotic wildlife and timber take advantage of the porous border and circuitous sea routes that thread through small islands.

The black market enriches even minor players, and turf wars erupt over payoffs and supplies. Newly arrived security troops, which now number 30,000, are forced to sort out the militant action from ongoing criminal feuds or minor diversionary blasts which enable illicit trade to carry on.

Thailand's first Muslim army chief-of-staff, General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, took command on 1 October; he will oversee a tactical revamp that stresses intelligence-gathering in the south. The 58-year-old Vietnam war veteran (who says that his religion has absolutely no bearing on his promotion) contends that the government must be able to guarantee safety before it can expect the locals to cooperate: “In the future, our troops must be able to give people confidence that they can trust us, then the situation will improve."

Sonthi predicts that as long as insurgents continue to threaten the general population, any community support would self-destruct. "My philosophy is victory without combat", he declares.

Thaksin Shinawatra sings his own tune, blasting opponents of his tough policy against militants for precipitating the bloodshed in Tanyonglimo. He complains that the security forces’ over-concern about political correctness meant they were reluctant to take decisive action that might have saved the two marines; bickering over the terms of their release cost them their lives.

"What happened shows that these people want violence and not peace", the prime minister fumed. "I will take responsibility for anything that goes wrong from now on … if I violate the law, you can take legal action against me."

Since Winai Nakhabut and Khamthon Thong-iat’s state funeral, the conflict in southern Thailand has claimed nearly a dozen more victims. Here and in Bali, a political solution to a violent insurgency seems a long way off.