Thailand's endemic insurgency

Jan McGirk
28 November 2005

Old Siam used to be a cosmopolitan kingdom, where the nobles took great pride in the diversity of its people. Their god-king granted protection to all his subjects, including people descended from ethnic Lao, Mon or Khmer bloodlines, as well as the wealthy Thai Chinese and immigrant traders from India. But the modern designation, Thailand, translates literally as the “homeland for Thais”. The decision to make that name change was hastily taken in a fit of nationalism in the approach to the second world war, during which Bangkok went on to ally with the Japanese in order to secure its precarious independence and protect itself from occupation.

There was only a ten-minute discussion before the radical rebranding of Siam to Thailand in 1939. Only the justice minister, Thamrong Nawasawat, objected: he argued that the new name would rankle with “other races” in the kingdom, because non-Thais would feel they were not full members of society. He recalled the position of the ethnic Malays of Pattani, an autonomous Muslim sultanate which was formally annexed by Siam in 1909.

Nawasawat’s lone voice was prescient. Almost six decades on, a separatist insurgency festers in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces which once belonged to the former sultanate – Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala – and which are now home to an ethnic-Malay Muslim majority (of around 80%) whose members speak Yawi or Malayu rather than Thai as their first language. Fear and poverty traps this Islamic south in a cycle of despair and alienation, and many blame Bangkok for deliberate neglect of the region.

Also by Jan McGirk on Thailand, and the “war on terror” in southeast Asia, in openDemocracy:

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

Jan McGirk, “Bali’s agony, Thailand's turmoil” (October 2005)

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Since January 2004, attacks by militants and reprisals by 30,000 security troops in the restive frontier-zone have claimed more than 1,100 lives. There have been fourteen beheadings, hundreds of assassinations, and at least nineteen confirmed cases of forced disappearance. The scale of the crisis is also revealed in the multiple daily incidents: arson attacks, bombings and drive-by shootings, including those by death squads riding in unmarked vehicles. A Thai researcher who went south to investigate the conflict for a member of parliament was shot four times, once in the head, and has since gone into hiding. He insisted on anonymity for his own safety, but reported the incident to Sunai Phasuk, from the Bangkok office of Human Rights Watch, two months ago.

Village headmen in the region complain that the government, which imposed a state of emergency on these three provinces in July 2005, keeps blacklists of militant collaborators – often compiled with dubious intelligence. Anyone who is named on the blacklists must surrender or face arrest. The emergency decree, renewed in October, has heightened local mistrust of government troops, who are exempt from prosecution; because there is no redress for abuse or zealous excesses, security forces are able to run roughshod over human rights. Thailand’s National Reconciliation Commission chairman, the former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, has denounced the legislation as a “licence to kill”.

The human-rights violations can be grotesque. Suspects herded into the cargo-hold of an airplane recently were threatened with being tossed out without a parachute unless they confessed, according to Kijja Aleehislah, a member of the Thai Muslim Lawyers' Association. At least five detainees have complained that police trampled on their faces and urinated in their mouths in order to obtain false confessions about their role in a weapons theft from security forces. Somchai Neelapaichit, their defence lawyer, was abducted on 12 March 2004, the day after he made their plight public record and only his bloodstained car has been located.

Almost two years into the insurgency, violence now threatens to spill over beyond the three southernmost Thai provinces. Militant young people across the region are vulnerable to manipulation from jihadist groups like Jemaah Islamiyah, foreign ministry analysts say; there has also been a marked increase in the number of hardline preachers who try and recruit from the 500 private religious schools in Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala.

The conflict has also accentuated tension between Thailand and Malaysia. Bangkok has accused Malaysia of not stemming terrorist activities emanating from within its territory, and sought to close the border. When 131 ethnic-Malay Thais, who said they feared for their safety in Thailand, crossed the border to take refuge in northern Malaysia, grievances between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur were exacerbated.

Bilateral relations have become so strained that the blunt-speaking former Malaysian strongman, Mahathir Mohamad, was recently dispatched to meet Thai leaders and find a way to tone down the rhetoric. "We all agree that there should be no megaphone diplomacy”, Mahathir said after two days of private talks. "Shouting at each other has never solved anybody's problem."

One massacre, two views

A disputed incident on 16 November 2005 in Bo Ngo, a village close to the Thai-Malaysian border, highlights the way that the conflict is generating mutual mistrust. The Thai police version is as follows: suspected Muslim militants using grenades and assault rifles slaughtered a couple and their seven children in a pre-dawn raid in the village in Narathiwat’s Ra-ngae district, 790 kilometres south of Bangkok; the assailants left behind an unexploded landmine in the middle of the street as a warning.

The attack killed Suding Awaebuesa (a police informant), his wife, their eight-month-old baby, and several daughters – as well as wounding nine of their neighbours. The police said that villagers blocked security forces from entering Bo Ngo for ten hours, fearful that they would face further violence from militants after cooperating with the government. Narathiwat’s governor Pracha Therat said: “we suspect the massacre might have been retaliation by militants because of (Suding Awaebuesa’s) defection five months ago.”

Some locals dispute the police’s version. Several villagers from Ra-Ngae told the Malaysian press that crowds came out to gawk at the carnage, but certainly were not massing to prevent the entry of troops, who are stationed just ten minutes away. One village elder complained: “A government’s responsibility is to protect its citizens, and we could not fathom why they took so long to arrive.”

After witnessing the bloodbath, Duraheng Jehso, the father of three wounded children, waited three hours before daring to drive them to get medical treatment. “The only thing I could do for them was give them paracetemol and wipe their blood with a cloth”, Duraheng said. Villagers told the (Kuala Lumpur) New Straits Times that the victims had no previous links with militants, so were not turncoats who were singled out for public punishment; a number blamed government forces for staging what looked to be a reprisal killing as a pretext for cracking down on a village of militant sympathisers.

Muslim-majority Malaysia has repeatedly voiced concern about the heavy-handed tactics used by Thailand's mainly Buddhist security forces to suppress the insurgency. Ra-ngae district is just 8 kilometres from Tayonglimo village, where two Thai marines were blamed for a drive-by shooting on 21 September, then abducted, tortured and killed by a mob after prolonged negotiations to free them failed. There, women and children had barricaded the entrance to the village, and this family-centred civil disobedience flummoxed authorities.

Thai officials portrayed suspected militants of attempting to use the same strategy in the aftermath of the Bo Ngo killings. "In the morning, villagers sealed off the village and insisted the killings were the work of the security officials", insisted Pracha Therat. The authorities made it a priority to use government spin to quash rumours of their own involvement; the army-owned radio station aired real-time commentary as 300 soldiers arrived belatedly to check the crime scene and patrol the streets. "We broadcast what was really happening in a radio programme to make the villagers understand the situation", the Narathiwat governor said. In Bangkok, General Rungroj Mahasalanond, the armed forces supreme commander, dismissed suggestions that government authorities were behind the massacre.

The south burns, Thaksin reads the stars

Meanwhile, the Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, has made no comment on this upturn in southern violence because he is too distracted by a combination of astrological superstition and a personal feud.

Thaksin refuses to speak to the press until 2006, blaming unlucky astrological alignments: soothsayers have cautioned the Thai leader that it is unwise for him to communicate while the planet Mercury is in retrograde. But this self-imposed gag has not stopped him from filing three civil and two criminal libel suits against his nemesis, the gadfly publisher Sondhi Limthongkul and his companies.

Thaksin is demanding 1 billion baht ($24.3 million) for defamation of his character, and the Bangkok civil court has issued an injunction barring Sondhi and nine associates from criticising the prime minister verbally or in writing. Thus the thin-skinned premier Thaksin has avoided answering allegations that his family misused government planes and funds, or that he has made any missteps in his governance.

Yet day after day, under Thaksin Shinawatra’s watch, the south keeps haemorrhaging more blood. Buddhist businessmen, Muslim rubber-tappers, imams, monks, schoolchildren, teachers, police, and civil servants all live in fear of the escalating violence. Young gunmen frequently sabotage municipal power plants and then spray bullets with abandon while townspeople cower in the dark.

Security forces now will train up to 20,000 southern residents to handle firearms, although arming vigilantes is likely to fan unrest. Selected mobile-phone signals in the south are to be blocked to make it more difficult for militants to coordinate attacks and bombings. The Southern Border Provinces Peace-building Command warns that militants, to avoid being traced, may dial a number at random and hang up, leaving a missed call message on someone’s phone. By returning missed calls immediately, unwitting residents risk triggering a bomb.

Alienation is growing, and plans to relocate marginalised hill-tribes from northern Thailand to the south in order to boost the numbers of non-Muslims can only intensify it. The International Crisis Group warns that until reports of abuses and disappearances can be thoroughly investigated, with a transparent forensics process in place, the likelihood is that the insurgents will gain sympathy, support and eager recruits. This problem is not going to go away by itself.

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