Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2006, pages 40-41

Islam and the Near East in the Far East

Southern Thailand Conflict Intensifies, Grows More Vicious

By John Gee

A Muslim boy lifts his shirt to Thai government soldiers for security clearance at a checkpoint following a bomb blast in the village of Bukit, in the country’s southern Narathiwat province, Nov. 25, 2005. Two Muslim men were shot dead in separate attacks by suspected Islamic militants in southern Thailand, while four soldiers were seriously wounded in bomb attacks (AFP Photo/Madaree Tohlala).

THAILAND is a state that faces a worsening armed conflict with some of its own citizens. Militarily, the fighting has been confined to predominantly Muslim provinces in the country’s far south, but that may not remain so if the violence is allowed to go on increasing. The fighting already has disturbed relations between Thailand and neighboring Malaysia, and there are fears that it could have a wider regional impact.

At the end of October, Agence France Presse calculated that the death toll since the present outbreak began had passed 1,000, but that was on the basis of Thai security forces’ announcements. A few days later, on Nov. 2, a statement issued by the anti-government Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) put the total at over 1,300. Either way, it was an indication of the gravity of the conflict that re-ignited in January 2004, when separatist militants raided an army camp and seized 300 weapons. In itself this might not have led to drastic consequences, as the insurgency in Thailand’s Muslim-majority border areas had limped along for years without rallying very much active support. Subsequent heavy-handed actions by the Thai military and government, however (see September 2004 and January/February 2005 issues of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,), had the effect of driving much of the population into the arms of the rebels, among whom PULO is a veteran among younger groups.

Two incidents had a particularly strong impact on Muslim public opinion.

The first took place on April 28, 2004, when 108 mainly young Muslim men died in a day of clashes with the Thai army, which the latter claims was the result of a coordinated assault by militants. The army’s assault on the historic Krue Se mosque, where separatist militants had taken refuge, resulted in 32 alleged militants being killed and the mosque being badly damaged. Eyewitness accounts indicated that the besieged men had few weapons; Pallop Pinmanee, the general responsible for the attack, rejected the claim that they only had one rifle among them, only to assert that they had four, “including a grenade launcher” (see Nirmal Ghosh’s article, “No regrets, says Thai assault commander,” in the Aug. 14, 2004 Straits Times).

The second was the massacre at Tak Bai on Oct. 25, 2004, when the suppression of a demonstration outside a police station resulted in 85 men being killed, 78 of whom died from suffocation or from being crushed after being piled on top of each other in trucks for transportation to a military base.

In both cases, official investigations took place, but resulted in minimal action against those responsible for the deaths, despite strong criticisms from sections of the media and human rights activists throughout Thailand. Most Muslims were thoroughly alienated from the central government and the army by their repressive policies, so that now, even if they don’t necessarily support the separatist groups actively, they do not wish to cooperate with the Thai authorities.

The brutality has not been one-sided; separatist militants have murdered dozens of innocent Buddhist civilians, including monks.

This past July, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government granted itself emergency powers. The decree concentrated control of the counter-insurgency effort in the south in the prime minister’s office and gave him the power to impose curfews, ban publications and public gatherings, have phones tapped and detain “suspects” without charge. It gave officials immunity from “civil, criminal and disciplinary penalties” for carrying out actions, including the killing of suspects, under the emergency provisions. What was introduced as a three-month measure was extended in October for a further three months, according to the Oct. 19, 2005 Bangkok Post. At the beginning of November, it was extended in geographical scope too, from the three southernmost provinces to include two districts of adjacent Songkhla province.

Under the emergency powers, mobile phone subscribers were ordered to register their pre-paid SIM (Subscriber Identification Module) cards by Nov. 15, after which their calls will be blocked. In theory, registration would allow the government to keep track of everyone who owns a mobile phone that contains one. This was said to be a reaction to the militants’ use of mobile phones to detonate bombs, one of the signs of their increasing skill in warfare.

Thirty thousand Thai troops operate in the south of the country. Many are poorly trained national servicemen who simply want to get through their obligatory military term in one piece; they have little motivation to risk their lives against the guerrilla tactics of the rebels. The conflict has worsened economic conditions in a region that was already among Thailand’s poorest, and Thaksin’s insistence on emphasizing the military approach toward the troubled area has only made matters worse.

The gravity of the situation in southern Thailand seems to be little understood in the outside world. That may change if it starts to impinge on not-too-distant tourist resorts such as Phuket, or draws in foreign networks keen to capitalize on the bungling and harshness of those initiating and implementing central policies toward the Muslim south.

Israel Still Seeking Indonesian Gain

The article by Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom that appeared in Indonesia’s Jakarta Post in October (see the previous issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,) drew a strong rejoinder from Ali Kazak, head of the General Palestinian Delegation to Australia and New Zealand and ambassador of Palestine to Vanuatu and East Timor.

In an Oct. 19 rejoinder in the Jakarta Post, “The true colors of Israel’s Palestine policy,” Kazak compared the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip to “prison guards withdrawing from inside the prison to outside it.” He rejected the idea that Muslim countries should reward Israel for its move by establishing diplomatic relations:

“The establishment of relations with Israel should only occur when Israel recognizes Palestinian rights, allows the refugees to return to their homeland in accordance with U.N. General Assembly resolution 194 and withdraws from all the 1967 occupied Palestinian and Arab territories, foremost Jerusalem and Al Haram Al Sharif, in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with its historic capital, East Jerusalem.”

Six days later, Israeli diplomat Emanuel Shahaf (described as “retired”) wrote a further article in the Post, “Indonesia and Israel: What now?” In it he called for business and academic links (not necessarily direct) and the opening of regular channels of communication, which, he suggested, could be through Singapore.

In introducing his proposals, Shahaf praised the Indonesian government for “showing willingness to deal with the potential internal public and political fall-out, which as it turned out, was a lot smaller than many analysts would have predicted.” On this latter point he was undoubtedly right: criticism and public protest against the meeting between the foreign ministers of Israel and Indonesia at the United Nations in September was far more muted than the responses to former President Abdul Rahman Wahid’s mooted approaches to Israel just four years ago would have suggested. 

John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore, and the author of Unequal Conflict: The Palestinians and Israel, available through the AET Book Club.

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