Unrest continues to grow in southern Thailand. Long-standing grievances are being compounded by government bungling, insensitivity and negligence. Now, even Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra concedes that violence is likely to increase. A failure to properly respond to Muslim complaints will guarantee that the anger becomes an insurgency, with potentially disastrous consequences for Thailand and all of Southeast Asia.
The citizens of southern Thailand have many reasons to be angry. They are not like the rest of the country. As descendants of the Muslim kingdom of Pattani, which was annexed by Thailand in 1902, they are followers of Islam in a predominantly Buddhist nation. They have strong ties to Malaysia, speak a Malay dialect and identify themselves as Pattanis rather than Thais. In addition, the region is much less developed than the rest of the country; it generates a mere 1.5 percent of Thailand’s gross national product.
The government’s attempt to impose a Thai identity on the south has increased resentment and fueled an independence movement that thus far has failed to gain widespread acceptance. But that could be changing: Estimates are that separatists may have as many as 30,000 supporters throughout Thailand. Some — it is not clear how many — have trained in guerrilla camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
The Islamic factor is becoming increasingly important in southern Thailand. Mr. Thaksin’s support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq incited many Muslims. Religious leaders have become increasingly critical of Bangkok’s policies, as extremists claim support from fellow religionists throughout the region. There is as yet no evidence of the involvement of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) — the organization responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing, which killed more than 200 people, and thought to have organized subsequent attacks in Jakarta — but experts say it is only a matter of time before JI exploits the unrest to further its dream of a pan-Islamic state stretching across Southeast Asia.
A low-grade insurgency has intensified throughout the year. The government says there have been 1,000 attacks by separatists, and the death toll has surpassed 535 people. In April, 108 militants were killed in a series of attacks on government facilities in a single day. Last month, 87 people were killed after a riot by Muslim protesters in Narathiwat. Many of the deaths occurred after hundreds of demonstrators were arrested by the police and forced into trucks. Packed too tightly, dozens suffocated or were crushed. Security officials now say some may have drowned after being tied up and left face down in water on a river bank.
A nine-member independent commission has been appointed to investigate what happened. A thorough and honest report into the riots and their handling is essential if there is to be any hope for peace in the south. Among the issues to be explained is a military official’s admission that, initial statements to the contrary, troops fired into the crowd — not above their heads. Who gave those orders and why? To be credible, the investigation must pull no punches. That means going all the way to the top.
Mr. Thaksin should be censured for comments he made after the first reports of the deaths. He blamed Muslims for the deaths and said many victims were too weak after celebrating Ramadan, a Muslim month of fasting from sunrise to sunset. The anger generated by those remarks has kept emotions high; nearly two dozen people have been killed since the October riots in Narathiwat. Many of the victims have been Buddhists killed in retaliation for the Muslim deaths.
If the situation degenerates into tit-for- tat killings, the south could explode. Militants on both sides — Muslims and Buddhist nationalists — hope to provoke a government crackdown for their own purposes. Militant groups throughout the region have links. The border in southern Thailand is notoriously porous, and militants are thought to move with regularity from Malaysia to Thailand and back. In this fight, tactics are as important as strategy.
Mr. Thaksin has promised to remove the illegal weapons that flood the region. While that is essential, the “massive crackdown” that he has proposed could further inflame the situation. The prime minister has argued that militants want him to use the “iron fist” to give them an excuse to use more violence. His tough talk risks doing just that.
Over the long term, Bangkok must address the root causes of southern anger. The development gap must be closed. There has to be more sensitivity to Muslim mores and concerns. A failure to respond will feed an insurgency that could threaten the entire region.
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