Thailand: By day, there is a quiet menace, by night, the shootings begin

The Guardian
A renewed Muslim insurgency and heavy-handed security forces plague Thailand's poorest region Southern Thailand.
The Thai soldiers look nervous and bored. In the heat of the day they squat behind sandbagged, camouflaged checkpoints or patrol the streets, riding two-up on motorcycles, M16 rifles pointing skywards.
They watch Su-Ngai Padi's mostly Muslim population, the women shopping in dazzling pink and yellow robes and headscarves, the men lounging in dusty kopi shops, and the locals warily watch them back.

But beyond the town, deep in the rubber plantations and coconut groves, under a covert canopy of banana plants, mango and durian trees, others are also secretly watching. At dusk, as the streets empty and the people slip away, the army's control slips, too. It is then that the shootings, the random bombings, the disappearances and the fear begin. By day, there is a gritted-teeth pretence of order. By night, the killers come.

"Everybody in southern Thailand is living in fear, not just the civilians but the government officials, too, because nobody knows who is going to get killed next," said Abdul Rahman Abdul Samad, coordinator of the region's Islamic councils. "The main problem is that people here do not feel they are part of Thailand. We are walking a tightrope between the armed groups in the countryside and the army and police in the towns."

The separatist Muslim insurgency that flared anew in 2004 in the four southernmost Thai provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala and Songkhla has claimed an estimated 1,200 lives. Violent incidents occur almost daily: this week there was an attack on police in Pattani and an attempt to blow up a transmitter near Su-Ngai Padi.

Local people and international watchdogs say human rights abuses by the 30,000-strong security forces have further alienated the area's 2 million ethnic Malay Muslims from the majority Buddhist population in the north. A state of emergency imposed by Bangkok, renewed this month, has exacerbated economic and unemployment problems in Thailand's poorest region, they say.

Terror networks

Concern is growing that Islamist terrorist networks such as al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiyah, responsible for the Bali bombings, could exploit the unrest. "The violence is driven by local grievances and there is no evidence of external involvement," a report by the independent International Crisis Group (ICG) said. "But if this situation is left to fester it could attract jihadists from outside Thailand." Bangkok could become a target.

Pattani and its neighbouring provinces were for many centuries an independent Islamic kingdom, founded in the 11th century. That ended abruptly in 1909 when British colonialists, expanding their hold on the Malayan peninsular, signed the Anglo-Siamese treaty and ceded the four provinces to Bangkok. Since then the area has witnessed invasion by the Japanese in 1942, a communist insurgency during the post-war Malayan Emergency, and since the 1960s the rise of several indigenous separatist movements spearheaded by the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo).

The current violence is attributed to a bewildering variety of shadowy groups, including the National Revolutionary Front, the Pattani Islamic Mujahidin and New Pulo. But nobody admits to knowing for sure exactly who leads the insurgency or supports it. Its glory days long gone, modern-day Pattani has become a kingdom of fear.

According to Shukat, a shopkeeper in Su-ngai Kolok on the Thai-Malay border, that uncertainty makes the situation more frightening. "We can't say who does the bombing and the shooting. Maybe it's Muslims, maybe it's drug gangs, maybe the army, we don't know," said Shukat (who did not want his real name published).

"The Islamic people say 'this country belongs to me, not to the Siamese'. All the Muslim people here oppose the government. The village people don't want to talk about it. They are afraid of the army ... a bomb exploded near the hotel last August. Now the tourists don't come. Everyone is scared."

A local journalist, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said ordinary people were trapped in the middle of the conflict. "Nobody knows which way to turn. Every day something happens. They make ambushes by throwing nails on the road. When the police cars stop, they shoot," the journalist said. But who "they" are he cannot say.

Prateep Chotiwong, a government official, said anyone working for the state was a potential target, but the non-Muslim Thai minority, comprising 20% of the southern population, was at particular risk. "The Thai people, you ask them if they want to stay, they say 'No! We want to leave'," he said. "The government employees have all been given guns for their own protection." With a wry smile, he lifts his orange shirt to reveal a revolver tucked into his waistband.

Manun Jasmani, Su-Ngai Padi's head man, said the government had increased economic aid, including free medical care and more money for Islamic teaching in schools, and claimed security was improving. But this week Buddhist teachers at a school in another part of Narathiwat demanded new jobs in the north after being taken hostage by pupils and parents protesting at the police's detention of two villagers.

"The militants want independence," said Mr Abdul Rahman, the Islamic councils' coordinator. "But some people do not see the need. So there are divisions and this helps the Thais keep control." But the blacklisting and arbitrary arrest of suspects under emergency laws and disappearances blamed on "bad elements" in the security forces had inflamed opinion and made matters worse.

An autonomy deal for the south, similar to last year's agreement in Aceh, Indonesia, has been mooted, Mr Abdul Rahman said. "But the government has never mentioned this. Many people in the north would object."

Pressure on the US-backed government of the nationalist Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, to soften its approach has been slowly building since the notorious Takbai and Krue Se mosque incidents in 2004, in which more than 200 alleged militants died. In November the ICG urged Bangkok to place more emphasis on peace-building, end immunity from prosecution for security force members, fully investigate disappearances, and ensure detainees get access to a lawyer.

Malaysia, concerned that unrest could spill over the border into Islamic-controlled Kelantan state where there is strong sympathy for Thailand's ethnic Malays, is privately pushing a conciliatory line. "The Thais will have to talk sooner or later. They must agree to a high degree of autonomy," a senior Malaysian defence official said. A report by Thailand's parliamentary foreign affairs committee has also recommended enhanced economic and educational development programmes in the south.

Saifuddin Ismail, who helped compile the report, said 90% of children attended non-state religious schools or pondoks, the equivalent of Arab madrassas. "The report said the government should persuade the kids to go to government schools. But they won't because they are forced to learn in the Thai language. The government has to change the syllabus," he said.

Another inquiry, chaired by a former prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, under the auspices of Thailand's National Reconciliation Commission, is due to report in March.

But there is little sign that Mr Thaksin is ready to give ground. When a Pulo spokesman exiled in Sweden offered talks this week in return for an army withdrawal and an end to the killing, Mr Thaksin, said to be eyeing a third term, rejected the proposal. "The government does not have any policy to open negotiations with the groups causing unrest in the southern region," he said.

Visiting Pattani earlier this month the Thai army chief, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, appeared to dash hopes of peace in the kingdom of fear. A military solution was attainable, he told his troops, and separatists should receive no quarter. "It is our mission to hunt them down and tear them apart."

Simon Tisdall in Su-Ngai Padi in Thailand
Saturday January 28, 2006
The Guardian