by Correspondent in Bangkok (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 10, Shawwal, 1425)
Hardly had the blood dried on Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s hands after the storming of the historic Kerisik mosque in Pattani last April, than the ‘Butcher of Bangkok’ committed another horrifying massacre of Muslims. On October 25 he received a query from his security forces in the Muslim-majority Narathiwat province in southern Thailand: whether or not they should disperse several thousand Muslim protesters at a police station in Tak Bai district. Immediately after getting their go-ahead, Thai security forces were unleashed on the unarmed protesters and shots were fired directly into the crowd, resulting in several dead. Twenty-four hours later the world was to be told that more than eighty protesters had been killed.
Such brutal repression of peaceful protesters was previously unheard of in Thailand, where demonstrations and other ‘democratic’ forms of activity are usually more tolerated than in any other southeast Asian nation. But Thaksin’s contempt for Muslim rights is no secret; his reaction to the high death toll — praising the security forces for doing “a good job” as well as claiming the dead Muslims were ‘weak’ because of fasting in Ramadan and drug abuse — got him criticism in all the main Thai newspapers. Thaksin was also subjected to rare condemnations from neighbouring Muslim rulers, most notably from Malaysia, as well as from human rights organisations. But, boosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s (ASEAN) selective non-interference policy, coupled with the Thai regime’s strong support for the US ‘war on terror’, Thaksin is right to think that his actions will not spell the end of his political career, although rumours abound of his government’s impending resignation. Neighbouring Muslim organisations have so far given the standard response to the massacre, saying that the latest actions by Bangkok will only fuel “extremism and militancy” in the region.
The protesters had gathered to express their anger over the detention of several Muslims who were accused of stealing arms, an accusation that Muslims have got used to since the beginning of Thaksin’s ‘anti-terror’ actions in June 2003 disturbed the relative peace in the three southern Muslim heartlands. As the crowd got larger, the police resorted to provocations, randomly pulling out several people from the crowd. Later the army, complete with tanks and machine guns, were brought in, and chemical gas was sprayed to disperse the crowd, which consisted partly of women and children.
Because the protesters were weakened by the effects of chemicals and running for water, the army took the chance to beat them: some were shot while making their way to the river to clear the chemicals, as post-mortems later showed. More than thousand protesters, most of them badly injured, were stuffed like chickens into army trucks; the deaths were kept secret until the government found it hard to conceal the numbers of dead any longer. Although the government announced that more than eighty protesters had died of suffocation, post-mortems showed than many of them were shot dead; some may already have been dead when they were piled into the trucks, and others died of their injuries. More than forty protesters are still not accounted for, prompting the UN Commission on Human Rights to urge Bangkok to speed up the investigation into the killings and missing people.
For Muslims in southern Thailand, the brutality of the security forces is no news, but this time the grisly manner in which people were crushed to death laid bare the Thaksin regime’s determination to crush the Muslim discontent. Several Pattani Muslim leaders had harboured the illusion that the Thai monarchy (which is by and large respected in the country) would intervene to punish Thaksin for these crimes. That has not happened; as happens in most constitutional monarchies in such circumstances, Thailand’s king and queen issued vague statements urging an end to “violence”, with the queen even asking people in the south to stand behind the security forces in the fight against ‘militants’. Only when more than thirty Buddhists were killed in the wake of the Tak Bai massacre did the Queen openly express concern about anyone’s security: “I don’t know where we would evacuate 300,000 Thais [Buddhists], but we can’t allow them to be killed daily like this,” she said.
Thaksin has been blaming everybody from al-Qa’ida to Muslims educated in foreign countries for the southern conflict. He has also accused neighbouring Malaysian Muslims, such as the Islamic Party (PAS), which is ruling Kelantan state, bordering southern Thailand, of funding the Pattani struggle.
Like neighbouring Cambodia and Indonesia, Thaksin is careful not to put the blame on the so-called Jema’ah Islamiyah, the ‘al-Qa’ida offshoot’ whose existence has yet to be proven (except by bulky reports published by the likes of Australia, Singapore, the CIA and western-backed human rights organisations). Claiming that there are ‘foreign’ militants on one’s soil is at the moment a bad move: it invites the US’s direct intervention, which in turn discredits governments in the eyes of their people, who see the US government as an imperialist power.
For many decades the conflict has been evolving to become more and more political, after many Muslims, including those who had taken up arms, decided that armed struggle should be a last resort. Many Muslim organisations accepted the previous Thai government’s amnesty offer and given the authorities the benefit of the doubt. This good will was not reciprocated; instead corrupt government officials and official refusal to let Muslims handle their own affairs fuelled Muslim discontent. With Thaksin’s government eager to please the Bush administration, the armed struggle has resurfaced as one of the many alternatives for Muslims. Several groups in Pattani, notably the almost-defunct Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), have issued statements threatening to take revenge by bringing the conflict to the capital, Bangkok. The latest massacre of Muslim protesters was just a small part of Thaksin’s ‘war against terrorism’, which is aimed especially at Muslim civilians in the south. It all started when Bangkok attempted to show US its worth in the ‘war on terror’ by announcing the closure of Muslim madrasahs, raiding Islamic centres, and arresting teachers and Muslim leaders.
The three southern regions of Narathiwat, Pattani and Songkhla, generally referred to as Pattani, were historically part of a Muslim kingdom that the Siamese kingdom annexed in the 1700s. In the 1960s the Pattani United Liberation Army (PULA) took on a more political approach after members laid down arms. (For detailed background of the Pattani conflict, see Crescent, February 2004). Right now, Thaksin has favoured a military solution and is confident he can restore ‘order’. After the Kerisik mosque massacre last April, he visited Muslim villagers in the south and embarked on his ‘rice and rhetoric’ campaign (see Crescent, June 2004), dismissing Muslim discontent to bread and butter issues. Now Thaksin has come out with an even funnier plan: dropping 63 million paper birds from the sky and urging people to send these birds as condolences to families of victims of the southern conflict. “I believe the situation will improve. We have the best solution that is based on respect for human rights, for peace, and for law and order,” said Thaksin. Owing to his previous records one cannot rule out the possibility that his ‘paper bird’ exercise is really a rehearsal for a ‘final solution’ for the region.
Thailand’s general elections are due early next year, and Thaksin’s proposal to restore peace and “respect for law and order” in such a short time sends chills down Muslim civilians in the south. The shortcut for an election victory for Thaksin is to play the Buddhist card, so there is little to surprise anyone in the fact that he is now busy visiting Buddhist temples in the southern provinces.