Thai prime minister’s rice-and-rhetoric campaign unlikely to assuage Muslim anger at massacre

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Correspondent in Bangkok

Rabi' al-Thani 13, 1425 2004-06-01

South-East Asia

by Correspondent in Bangkok (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 4, Rabi' al-Thani, 1425)

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand has suddenly found himself playing the role of a public-relations officer, distributing packets of rice to Muslim villagers while brandishing the rhetoric of fighting terrorism. Early in May he flew to the southernmost part of Thailand to visit Muslim villagers, most of whom lost relatives in the bloodbath on April 28 that was perpetrated by security forces. Armed with small amounts of cash, rice, washing detergents and promises of scholarships for children, Thaksin declared that he wanted to use compassion to "turn these bad people into decent ones", adding that "things are not as terrible as people think."

But no matter how hard the Thai government denies it, the killing of hundreds of Muslims in the south of the country is a massacre by any standard. The indiscriminate use of firearms by security forces — heavy machine-guns, rockets and even helicopters against a group of disenchanted youth armed only with sticks and knives — was shocking but not surprising. Since last year Bangkok, which offered to lease its lands to the US military last year, has been eager to join the US's ‘coalition of the willing': what better way to entice the US than with ‘Islamic' militants?

Thaksin's regime has been arresting and abducting Muslim leaders and social activists, raiding madrasahs, fingerprinting Muslim students, and provoking anti-Muslim prejudice by blaming bomb-explosions in the country on the Muslims. Although many fingers were pointed at a revival of the Pattani Muslims' armed struggle to break away from Siamese control, which died down in the early 1980s, many (including government officials) were not convinced. The mysterious and successful raids by unknown groups into military depots and police stations were also attributed to Muslim separatists; possible other factors, including the fact that Thailand has for decades been a centre for the illegal arms trade and cross-border drug-smuggling are being widely ignored.

In the incident on April 28, there have been confirmed reports that security forces were engaged in wanton destruction of civilians' properties in the southern Muslim-majority provinces bordering Malaysia. There have been claims that armed groups launched ‘coordinated attacks' on police stations and checkpoints in the southern Muslim provinces of Yala, Pattani and Songkhla, where the Muslim population of six million are. Some of the men — who, according to some reports, were armed only with knives — then sought shelter in Kerisik mosque, an historic mosque in Pattani, hoping that a mosque might be spared. The result was Thai troops and police storming into the mosque, killing whoever they found on the spot using machine-guns.

Bangkok's explanation that those who died were ‘terrorists' was also expected, following accusations that Thaksin has made against Muslim leaders over a spate of bombings and other violence. Such explanations have only fuelled calls for an independent inquiry into the killings. An ‘independent commission' set up a week after the killings has already become a mockery: it does not include any representative from the Pattani Muslim community, but instead has four Muslim government officials. The commission does not even include a single member of the National Human Rights Commission and, worse, has a former director of National Intelligence (the agency directly responsible for the trouble) among its members.

The whole truth about the incident, including the ‘coordinated attacks', may never be known: it may well be to a certain extent a result of the revival of the Muslim struggle for self-determination in the south. Yet doubts that most of these attacks (such as bombings of Buddhist temples and murders of monks) are the Muslims' work at all have grown with each explanation offered by Bangkok and the secretive manner in which facts are given reluctantly to the public. As in other parts of East Asia, Muslims have historically lived peacefully with Buddhists. Attacks on Buddhist monks and temples are uncharacteristic of the decades-old Muslims struggle. A similar tactic was adapted by the Burmese junta not long ago to stir up ill-feeling between the Buddhist community and Rohingya Muslims.

For several months Bangkok has been stirring up the already tense relationship between government officials and the southern Muslim population; for instance there was a sweeping security operation there during US president George W. Bush's visit last year. A series of arrests and raids of madrasahs has caused even officials to warn Thaksin's government that it is playing with fire in its eagerness to please Uncle Sam.

Up to now the only explanation given by the Thai government is that Muslims in the south are economically deprived, resulting in their taking up arms. Such superficial explanations result in superficial responses from neighbouring Malaysia, which has proposed to send Malay-speaking Muslim teachers to the area to counter the ‘radicalism' within Thai Muslim society, who share cultural and lingual similarities with their Malay counterparts.

The latest incident has also put pressure on Bangkok to follow Manila in its acceptance of US interference. Singapore, the US' strongest ally in the region, has for months been calling for a more active American military role in the southeast Asian region to address what it has so far failed to prove — the existence of ‘Islamic terror organisations'. The bloodbath on April 28 is thus viewed as a godsend by the US and its allies, but human-rights activists have warned Thaksin against accepting any such offers: "If accepting [US] assistance would mean the presence of US personnel — intelligence, military or technical personnel — in Thailand, it would be seen even more clearly that Thailand is leaning even more closely to the US and its global war against terrorism which... is seen as the US's war against Islam," warned Dr Sunai Phasuk of Forum Asia, a Bangkok-based human rights group, on April 29.

The US has been watching events in southern Thailand closely, and has offered assistance such as that offered to Manila, claiming to fight the Abu Sayyaf kidnap group. It has recently also claimed that the Malacca Straits (shared by southeast Asian countries) is riddled with ‘terrorist' boats, regardless of the fact that the straits are historically notorious as a haven for ordinary pirates — and has offered marines to be stationed there and patrol the waters. The offer was immediately rejected by Malaysia and Indonesia, but embraced by Singapore and Thailand.

April 28, the date when Kerisik mosque was attacked with rocket-launchers, is a significant date in the history of Thai domination of this Muslim-majority region. It was on this date in 1948 that more than 300 Muslim villagers were gunned down in a crackdown by the Thai army to crush an uprising of Muslims who were angry because of persecution by government officials.

The southern Thai region consists of Satun, Songkhla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. Muslim resentment in the last three decades has grown since September 2001, as Bangkok joined the list of countries in the "coalition of the willing" in the US's war on terror (Bangkok has 450 military personnel with the US occupation army in Iraq). The Muslims' silent resentment finally emerged into the open in June 2003, when the Thai authorities arrested prominent Muslims and accused them of planning attacks on several foreign embassies.

The southern regions were historically part of Pattani, a Muslim kingdom that Siam annexed and made part of its kingdom in the 1700s. An armed struggle in the 1960s by the Pattani United Liberation Army (PULA) took on a more political approach after members laid down arms in exchange for a ceasefire-cum-amnesty programme offered by Bangkok. They later formed Bersatu (meaning ‘united' in Malay).

Muslim government officials have not reacted with anger to the security forces' heavy-handed actions against their Muslim brethren. Muslims in the government and opposition vie with each other to please the establishment, and compete to show who is more ‘anti-terrorist'. On May 21 opposition MPs accused Wan Muhammad Noor Matha, Thailand's deputy prime minister, of having close ties with the Pattani Muslim struggle, and called for his resignation.

Bangkok has for decades ignored the need for investment and development in these areas, and treated them as a dumping ground for corrupt civilian and military officials, thus aggravating local anger. With Bangkok's accusation that ‘terrorists' lurk within Muslim organizations, the April 28 incident was just waiting to happen.

With blood on his hands, Thaksin is keeping the public in the dark about the facts behind the ‘violence' in the south. The latest is a clampdown on the sale of a video-disc showing video footage of the raid on Kerisik mosque. When not counting his stakes in England's football industry, a heavily escorted Thaksin keeps himself busy visiting Muslim villages in a public relations exercise that is marked by rice and rhetoric.

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