by Kuala Lumpur Correspondent (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 17, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1424)
After months of Bangkok accusing its southern Muslim population of being terrorists, a series of violent attacks rocked the southern Muslim-majority provinces near the Thai-Malaysian border. The targets of the attacks are like those in Aceh: schools were torched, there were bombings, and a military compound was raided by an unknown group who managed to get away with arms and ammunition, killing several soldiers. Muslims in the south had already been angered by suggestions of militancy and links with al-Qa’ida, and said that the attacks were carried out by "bandits", whose motives might well be more criminal than political. On January 5 two bombs went off in the province, killing two policemen.
The violence is the worst in many years to hit the southern provinces, which have been locked in a ‘cold war’ of mistrust with Thai government officials. Bangkok immediately declared martial law in three southern provinces: Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, home to nearly six million Muslims. Such mistrust is in danger of getting out of control, after many Muslim leaders mysteriously disappeared; they are believed to have been abducted by security officials who blamed them for the raid on the army camp. On January 17 Matohlafi Maesae, a community leader, was found murdered, three days after he was taken from his house by armed men.
Initially, prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra blamed the military for slackness, and called for a revamp of security measures. The ease in which the ‘bandits’ fled with supplies from an army base is a huge embarrassment for Bangkok: last year the government had staged an ultra-high-security operation especially in the Muslim-majority south after George Bush’s visit. "Some loose screws need tightening. Those in disrepair will be flushed out of the system. The military should have known the bandits were after their weapons, but instead had been complacent in the face of threats," said Thaksin.
One of those who has felt the premier’s wrath is Wan Muhamad Nor Matha, Thailand’s interior minister, a Muslim who is in charge of security in the south. Muslims have rallied behind him amid rumours he may be removed from the cabinet, despite his own accusations that Muslim-run schools promote militancy among students.
Bangkok had at first avoided linking Muslims to the attack, wary because the community had already been angered by arrests of prominent Muslims, for example Waehamadi Wae-dao, a medical doctor and critic of official policies, who was arrested and accused of plotting bomb-attacks on foreign embassies. Even some within the Thai government react with disbelief and have called on Thaksin to be cautious, especially when the Muslims in the south have in a way ceded the armed struggle for independence, trusting Bangkok to fulfil its promises of granting some form of autonomy for Muslim affairs to Muslim leaders. The government is also supposed to be bringing development into the area.
Yet Thaksin could no longer resist his urge to blame Muslims, saying that madrasahs (known as ponoh), a cornerstone of Muslim education throughout the southern provinces that dates back hundreds of years, are promoting militancy and violence. On January 12, the Thai military raided a madrasah in Narathiwat, leaving empty-handed after several hours of fruitless searching. Several school heads have challenged Thaksin’s government to conduct raids on all ponohs, saying that they have nothing to hide. Muslims were angered further by authorities intimidating students and teachers, fingerprinting them and arresting teachers, after accusing them of links with the recent attacks. This provoked criticism from former Thai foreign minister Surin Patsuwan, who said that Thaksin’s government was "not sensitive enough to the feelings and sentiments of the people".
The Bangkok Post reported on January 13 that the education ministry would take steps to bring these schools under its supervision, but stopped short of saying they would be banned altogether. The Thai government did ban private Muslim schools in 1999, but there are still more than 100 of them in the Muslim heartlands of Songkhla, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, with close to 10,000 students.
The result of the unprecedented violence in southern Thailand brings to the surface many previously less known problems. Some reports have suggested that the army depot raid could have been carried out in order to smuggle arms from Thailand to GAM fighters in Aceh. It is also likely that the supplies could have been sold by officers or men in the Thai army itself, in the hope of making some quick cash. After all, Thailand has been a centre of the illegal weapons trade since decades of war in neighbouring countries, such as Kampuchea (Cambodia) and Vietnam.
Another suggestion is that there is anger over Bangkok’s staunch support for the Bush administration: last year it endorsed plans to lease vacant land near the Sattahip naval base and Utapao air-base in Chonburi and Rayong provinces to the US army on a "commercial basis", despite Thailand’s commitment to neighbouring states to abide by the so-called zone of peace and neutrality under the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
However, favourite among all these explanations is the suggestion of involvement of Muslim "insurgents", who have been locked in a little-known struggle to gain autonomy in the south and to break away from the Thai nation-state, set up with help from the British colonisers in what was then Malaya. The suggestion cannot be dismissed altogether, as the recent clampdown on Muslim teachers and the madrasah system in the south has rekindled the anger and disenchantment of Thai Muslims towards Bangkok (see Crescent, July 1-15, 2003).
In any case, the violence has brought into the limelight the plight of the Muslims in Thailand, generally referred to as Pattani Muslims, and their struggle for some form of autonomy.
The southern region has a heavily Malay-speaking Muslim population and shares similar cultures and habits with the Malay Muslims in Malaysia. Thai governments for decades have traditionally suppressed their identity, for example discouraging the use of Malay language, in the hope of forging a national Thai identity. The Malays, who are all Muslim, resisted this cultural imperialism. In 1948 Pattani Muslims launched an all-out insurrection, hoping to break away from the kingdom and merge with its historical cousins in the northern part of the Malay peninsula, in present-day Malaysia. Pattani effectively lost its independence and was absorbed, thus creating a permanent Malay Muslim minority in Buddhist-majority Thailand.
The three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat were historically part of the Muslim kingdom of Pattani, which succumbed to Siamese control in the 1700s. In the 1960s, the Pattani United Liberation Army (PULA), an armed wing of the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), carried out an armed struggle, but the struggle became more political through a break-away faction of PULO. Not unlike the Moro Muslims, many Thai Muslim dissidents also turned to the Arab regimes for moral and material support, but failed to get it. Thai authorities have also often accused the Islamic Party (PAS)-led state government in the neighbouring Malaysian state of Kelantan of providing shelter to Muslim dissidents. In the early 1990s many members of PULO laid down their arms, answering Bangkok’s blanket amnesty programme Tai Rom Yen ("cool shade in the South"). In 1997 the many groups fighting in their own ways for Muslim empowerment agreed to merge under an umbrella organization, Bersatu (Malay for means "united").
What surprises some is the speed with which Bangkok has begun to link PULO and other dissident Muslim organizations to al-Qa’ida and its supposed Asian offshoot, the so-called Jemaah Islamiah. That the name al-Qa’ida will come up every time a bomb explodes goes without saying, so much so that even martyrdom operations by Palestinians and Iraqis have been credited to al-Qa’ida. The situation is no different in south east Asia, where governments in Thailand, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Manila have been vying with each other to prove their worth in the "war on terror", mostly by linking groups they dislike to al-Qa’ida.
Meanwhile, how Bangkok will placate the angry six-million Muslim community depends a lot on what lessons it learns from neighbouring hotspots, such as Aceh and Mindanao. There the governments have torn up every peace agreement and promise, only to become enmeshed in protracted wars that they cannot afford and cannot win. The question now is whether Bangkok, despite its history of tolerance (at least compared to its dictatorial neighbours), will also fall into the same trap.