History, as Japan and China have been
demonstrating, is easily abused. But it can be used to good effect.
Anyone wanting to understand the upsurge of violence in Muslim
southern Thailand should throw away the various guides to Al Qaeda
and the outpourings of the media's Islamic terrorism industry and
read the International Crisis Group's new report, "Southern
Thailand: Insurgency, not Jihad."
Tragic events in three
southern provinces over the past three years must be seen not as
connected to the Sept. 11 attacks or to Osama bin Laden or even to
Jamaah Islamiyah, supposedly Al Qaeda's Southeast Asian arm. This
upsurge, the ICG emphatically says, stems from the lethal
combination of the past 103 years of history and the policies that
the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra followed in the
south after it came to power in Bangkok in 2001.
The ICG report shows
that those in Bangkok who have not learned from the history of Thai
rule over this Malay-speaking Muslim region are condemned to repeat
the mistakes of their predecessors. By implication, it also carries
an important subtext for governments in many countries: The best,
and perhaps only, alternative to redrawing national boundaries
established by colonial and other treaties is to accept a
significant degree of separate status for ethnic minority regions -
or suffer sporadic or endemic insurgency.
The first rebellion of
what was then the Malay Sultanate of Patani (subsequently split into
the three provinces) was in 1902, when Bangkok formally extended its
rule southward. Further uprisings occurred in 1910 and 1922.
Attempts to force Buddhism and the Thai language on the region
reached a peak under Thailand's pro-Japanese fascist leader Phibul
Songgram, who in 1942 was handed by Japan the northern Malay states
of Kelantan, Trengganu, Kedah and Perlis. When the Thais were forced
to disgorge these in 1945, Patani Muslim leaders petitioned Britain
to be allowed to join Malaya. The British were willing, but their
U.S. allies were not.
Sporadic outbursts of
violence have been a feature of the region ever since. Separatist
groups have been active since the 1960s. They have waxed and waned
depending on factors ranging from their own cohesion to the policies
of Bangkok administrators to the degree of support they have had
from across the Malaysia border. But as the report makes very clear,
"the origins of the current violence lie in historical grievances
stemming from discrimination against the ethnic Malay Muslim
population and attempts at enforced assimilation." Political
grievances, not poverty, are the root cause.
As for the more
immediate causes of the recent troubles, the ICG admits they are
hard to pin down precisely. But it largely exonerates official
Malaysia, noting that several leading separatists were delivered to
Thailand in 1998. Indeed, it is scathing of Thai attempts to blame
the troubles on foreigners, and while there were links to Muslim
radicals elsewhere, these have not played any role in the violence.
It notes Sufi mysticism rather than imported Arabian puritanical
Islam in the violence and points out that the region's religious
conservatives have generally been cooperative with the authorities.
However, it does worry that radical outside forces could gain
influence if the region's sense of victimization is not reversed.
It finds direct links
with Thaksin's administrative changes in the south, which came at
the expense of the opposition Democrat Party, which dominates
southern Thai politics (not just in the Muslim provinces). It also
finds a link to the use of extrajudicial killings in Thaksin's
antidrug trade campaign, which it said gave "carte blanche to target
awkward locals for extrajudicial execution."
It finds that callous
reactions by army and political leaders to mass killings by the
military in 2004 have contributed to a cycle of violence, though one
that may have peaked: Thaksin has changed his policies and army
personnel as well as his language. The commission that is examining
the issues, under the much respected former prime minister, Anand
Panyarachun, may be able to suggest longer-term remedies as well as
Bangkok does have a real
problem. Thailand is one of Asia's most homogenous countries, held
together by language, a king and religion - and an army and
centralized bureaucracy. It is also a democracy, so a hard line
toward minorities can win votes. Political solutions for an
aggrieved minority are very difficult, complicated by the fact that
there are many Muslims in other parts of Thailand who are fully
But Thais and non-Thais
who would like to learn from history and avoid repeating it would do
well to read this report.