The Muslim South

Harsh Government Tactics Perpetuate Strife

November 19, 2004

NARATHIWAT, Thailand -- Bombings, drive-by shootings and knife attacks occur nearly every day in Thailand's Muslim-dominated southern region. The escalating violence has prompted a heavy-handed response from the government, prompting some observers to compare the strife to Russia's brutal and protracted engagement in Chechnya.

The death toll in the south this year is approaching 600, including more than 100 killed by Thai security forces.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has sent troops, imposed martial law and talked tough, blaming Islamic separatists for the violence and refusing to apologize for the deaths of more than 70 Muslims in military custody last month.

Since then, the southern provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, which share a porous border with Malaysia, have experienced a wave of killings of Buddhists attributed to separatists.

"We will decisively prosecute the separatists who wanted a separate territory," Thaksin said last week. "Don't worry. If there is a separatist war, I will be on the front line."

Yet the government has offered no proof that Islamic separatists are responsible for the attacks, and many in Thailand are skeptical of the claim. Instead, analysts say some of the killings are attributable to revenge attacks by aggrieved Muslims and some due to turf wars between criminal gangs taking advantage of the instability.

Whatever the cause, fears are widespread that the government's handling of the turmoil will cause the largely moderate Muslim population of southern Thailand, already alienated by the Buddhist-dominated policies of Bangkok, to turn radical. Analysts say the situation is ripe for exploitation by outside militant groups, though few believe al-Qaida or Jemaah Islamiyah, the southeast Asian group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing, are established in Thailand.

"If young people don't have jobs, if the economy is bad, it's easy for outside people to recruit them," said Phaisan Toryib, manager of a private Islamic school in Narathiwat supported partly by Saudi Arabia. "Then they misunderstand about Islam, and it's just fight, fight, fight, but they don't know fight for what."

Muslims account for about 7 percent of Thailand's population of 64 million but make up more than 70 percent of the three southernmost provinces. The area has long lagged behind the rest of the country in education levels and economic development. Trade in smuggled goods is believed to make up a large part of the local economy.

It is a lush landscape with olive, jackfruit and rubber trees and an exquisite coastline. But Thailand's tourism industry has largely bypassed the Muslim south. Instead, goats roam the beach, nibbling the grass, and cows graze along the roads.

The south once comprised the sultanate of Pattani, an independent kingdom until it was annexed in 1902 by Siam, as Thailand was known at the time. The Pattani United Liberation Organization and other separatist groups brought turmoil to the region in the 1970s but were largely subdued by the 1980s. Since then, as Thai political parties established roots in the south, Muslims have won seats in parliament and become cabinet members.

People interviewed here say the vast majority of Muslims in the south consider themselves Thai and have no interest in independence.

But many in the south feel closer to Malaysia than they do to the rest of Thailand. The local language, Yawi, is the same as Malay, and Malaysian television programming is widely available.

They are largely excluded from local government. Most officials and police officers are non-Muslims sent from outside the region, said Ahmad Somboon Bualang, a peace advocate of the Office of Islamic Committee of Pattani.

Furthering the sense of alienation is anger at the plight of Muslims around the world. President Bush's foreign policy is perceived by many here as anti-Muslim, and as a result, some consider Osama bin Laden a hero, said a local politician who asked not to be identified for fear of government retribution.

The daily indignities suffered as a result of martial law, such as police checkpoints every few miles, have bred even more resentment against the Thai government.

The incident that has provoked the most outrage occurred on Oct. 25, when soldiers fired into crowds of unarmed Muslims who had gathered for a peaceful demonstration in the Tak Bai district of Narathiwat. At least seven people died at the scene, and about 78 died while being transported in military trucks, mostly from suffocation.

Locals believe that far more people were killed by soldiers that day. At least 40 are still unaccounted for, said Thai Senator Kraisak Choonhavan, who has made fact-finding trips to the south.

The Tak Bai incident has enraged Muslims not only for its magnitude but its barbarity.

"I saw people being beaten, kicked, stomped on by soldiers," said Farida Yusuh, a villager who attended the demonstration with her husband. "When I was lying on the ground, the man lying next to me lifted his head to take a look. He was shot dead."

At least 30 people, mostly Buddhists, have been killed in apparent revenge attacks, including a village leader who was beheaded.

Thaksin's initial response to the Tak Bai massacre was to blame the victims, saying they were weak from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. He belatedly appointed an independent committee to investigate the incident but has refused to apologize, saying the idea was "nonsense."

Last week he called for all of Thailand's people to make origami cranes as a symbol of peace and love. Thai air force planes would then drop the paper birds, more than 60 million of them, on the three southern provinces on Dec. 5, the birthday of Thailand's beloved king. Muslim leaders scoffed at the idea.

Thaksin faces an election in February. Some have begun calling for his resignation, but many analysts say he will probably be re-elected. A former policeman turned telecommunications tycoon, Thaksin is the country's richest man. His populist policies have made him well-liked by the masses.

He declared a brutal war on drugs last year. Human rights groups say more than 2,300 suspected drug dealers were killed as a result, including hundreds in the south, apparently victims of extrajudicial executions by Thai police.

Some say the recent violence is related to the drug crackdown.

"(The criminal drug network) is unhappy because they're losing money because of Thaksin's policy to eradicate drug dealers," said Chatchai Jehpoh, a Muslim politician and businessman in Pattani.

The indiscriminate violence in the south has already caused some ethnic Chinese Thais to buy guns or flee the region.

"Before they ignored us Chinese," said a Chinese restaurant owner who has lived in Narathiwat for decades. "Now they're targeting us. They want us to leave. They say this land used to be theirs."

Just an hour earlier, someone walked into another Chinese restaurant one block away, put a bomb behind a refrigerator, then detonated it by mobile phone. At least 16 people were injured.

A Chinese shoe store owner a couple blocks away who refused to give her name said she is considering leaving.

"We get along well," she said. "Today I sold a lot of shoes. About 100 Muslim customers came in to buy shoes. I don't understand this violence."

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