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Southern Thailand's homegrown ills
Philip Bowring

FRIDAY, MAY 27, 2005
PHUKET, Thailand 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 short-term palliatives.
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 integrated.
But Thais and non-Thais who would like to learn from history and avoid repeating it would do well to read this report.
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