At the beginning of this year, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand was
being touted as the new informal leader of the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations. Now he may be Asean's greatest embarrassment after Myanmar's military
strongman, Than Shwe.
The deaths this week of 84 unarmed Muslim
demonstrators in southern Thailand was tragic enough in itself. Six appear to
have been shot dead and more than a dozen wounded, while 78 died later of
asphyxiation while being transported in army trucks.
Just as shocking as the deaths
themselves, which may have been due to unfortunate accident rather than design,
was Thaksin's callous reaction. He commended the anti-riot forces for their
work, claimed that "many of the protesters appeared to be in a drug-induced
state" and suggested that those who died did so not because of the military but
"because they were in a weak physical condition resulting from fasting." In
short, the dead had only themselves to blame.
Thaksin's crude remarks and the behavior
of the Thai forces cannot be written off as a matter for Thais alone. The
unhappiness of Thailand's three southern, predominantly Muslim, Malay-speaking
provinces has international implications - for the West in its self-proclaimed
"war on terror"; for Asean, in which Muslims are the largest religious group;
and for Malays in Malaysia, who inevitably sympathize with their brethren across
the border. The West has enlisted Thailand in its war on terror, and Thaksin has
been praised for his support, which has earned the offer of a free trade
agreement with the United States. But his government's actions in the south have
been creating just the kind of discontent on which Muslim fundamentalism
thrives, and resorting to strong-arm methods that engender terrorism and violent
The news from Thailand will be a
recruiting slogan for militants in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines and
will provide nourishment for the international jihadists who use such local
Muslim discontent as cover for their own, grander plans.
During the past year of troubles in the
south, Bangkok's policy toward the region has been confused at best. While there
has been talk of conciliation, the reality has been the often heavy hand of the
military. The highly centralized Thai state shows little sign of being willing
or able to address the needs of a region that is so different.
Thailand's three southern provinces once
formed the Sultanate of Pattani. In retrospect it is unfortunate that in the
early 20th century the British did not carry out their plans to detach Pattani
from Thai sovereignty, as they did with the Malay states of Kedah, Perlis,
Kelantan and Terengganu, which are now part of Malaysia. Nor did the victors in
1945 punish Thailand, as they once intended, for its pro-Japan wartime posture
by joining these provinces to Malaya.
To their credit, Asean members have so
far avoided revanchist thoughts and committed themselves to respecting the
borders, however illogical, that were set in colonial times. But it is hard to
imagine Thai-Malaysian relations remaining on an even keel if Bangkok treats its
Malay-Muslim region the way the Kremlin treats Chechnya.
Thaksin's government has cast shadows
over Thailand's bright, young democracy in several ways: the apparent widespread
use of extra-judicial killings during a war on drugs, various allegations of
favoritism toward related businesses, and the use of pressure on the news media
to curtail criticism of his government.
Those may be viewed as matters for the
Thai people, who elected him nearly four years ago and will soon have the
opportunity to vote him out of office. But Thaksin's words and his government's
actions in the south are of international concern. Thailand, the premier state
of mainland southeast Asia, is too important to let this go without public
rebuke by both its neighbors and its many foreign friends.