Originally Published 2004-02-11 07:02:33 Published on Feb 11, 2004
Terrorism: Thailand's Disturbed South
Southern Thailand is in ferment once again, with acts of violence reported since the beginning of January from the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala. On January 4, an army depot was raided and there were arson attacks on 18 schools and two police checkpoints in Narathiwat. Four soldiers were killed. The next day in Pattani, two police officers were killed in a bombing. Since then, three Buddhist monks and a policeman have lost their lives. The policeman and two of the monks were from the Yala province. The other monk was from Narathiwat. It is probably for the first time that Buddhists have been targeted in the south of the country.

Most people in Thailand are Buddhists, but about six million Muslims live in the south, constituting about 10 per cent of the total Thai population. A separatist movement came up during the 1970s demanding an independent State for the Muslims of the South, with an organisation called the Pattani United Liberation Front (PULO) being in the forefront of the struggle. After some years, it ran out of steam.

This region is marked by a high level of poverty and under-development. The prevailing lack of economic opportunities has alienated the local Muslim population. The level of education is also low as compared to the rest of the country. For example, young people in the Narathiwat province have three and a half years less schooling than those in Bangkok. There are reports of young Thai Muslims being educated in about a hundred odd private Islamic schools known as 'pendoks'. These schools teach and promote Wahabism. Saudi funding has been forthcoming. Some Thai Muslims had also been trained in the past by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the jihadi terrorist organisation of South-East Asia, is suspected to have made its presence felt in Southern Thailand. In May 2003, two Cambodian Muslims were arrested in the South. After a month, three Thai Muslims were arrested in the same region. They were all suspected to be linked to the JI. After the Bali bombing in Indonesia in October 2002, it was reported that some of the JI members who had participated in the bombing had met twice in southern Thailand. And there are also reports that the JI, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf group, the last two from the southern Philippines, are working together in the region.

Trade in drugs and arms smuggling are rampant in this part of the country. These could be used to finance terrorist activities. It is highly probable that there is already a connection between different terrorist groups and the drug kingpins operating in this region.

Bangkok has long neglected the south. In fact, the central government had until recently denied that the southern part of the country had any major problems. This was done mainly to protect the country's tourism industry and to preserve its reputation of being a safe destination for foreign investments.

The Government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been blamed by some analysts for the resurgence of violence in the region. Its action in abolishing the joint command, consisting of the army and the police, has particularly come in for criticism. The joint command was originally created to tackle the remnants of the secessionist movement in the south. Local army commanders were shifted many times. All this led to a drop in preparedness. The army certainly did not anticipate the current wave of fresh violence.

The central authorities have had a difficult time in enlisting local support for tracking down those responsible for the present wave of violence. The Thai Government has strengthened its deployment of its security forces in the region by sending an extra thousand troops. The Shinawatra Administration appears to be still groping in the dark in its efforts to determine the identity of those responsible for the resurgence in violence. Prime Minister Shinawatra has pointed the needle of suspicion at the Muslim separatists. He has also spoken about investigating the private Islamic schools in the region in this connection.

Analysts feel that a combination of different elements could have caused the current violence. Amongst the principal suspects are remnants of the separatist elements of the past, sympathisers of the JI and Al-Qaeda and even local criminals. As of now, the Thai Government seems to be confident of controlling the situation, but its ability to do so would depend upon its success in beefing up its intelligence and security apparatus and in promoting the economic and social development of the Muslims of the region in order to prevent them from falling prey to the ideology and propaganda of the JI and other elements sympathetic to Al-Qaeda. (6.02.04)

(The writer is a post-graduate of the University of Madras and works in the International Terrorism Watch Project of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). He is based in its Chennai Chapter. His E-Mail address: [email protected])

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