Sunday, August 15, 2004

Southern Fury

A slow ride by train from Bangkok to the south of Thailand is the only decent way (besides airplane) to make the journey. The hours drag out, but with the relative comfort compared to cramped buses, seats that pull down into beds for the overnight portion and the addition of a good book, it almost becomes enjoyable. It's been a few years since I travelled to Hat Yai in the south, a quick stopover before changing to mini bus which took me a few hours further south, over the border into Malaysia and the city of Penang where I sorted out some official business at the Thai embassy.

The south is unique for its sweltering humidity and heat, the Muslim majority population and extra-spicy cuisine. It also serves as a gateway to some of Thailand's many islands that are popular with tourists, though continuing development and the burgeoning sector for discount, internal airlines now allows many to avoid the overland option.

Ironically, the weather that is hotter by degrees than in the rest of the country results in a regional accent that is notable for its faster, clipped tempo. The opposite of what a person might expect, perhaps it facilitates finishing up with minor annoyances such as conversing so a person can concern themselves with more important matters such as finding a cool place to slump over and gain a brief respite from the heat.

The culture and feel is distinct in the south but the friendly, "mai pen rai" attitude (literally "it doesn't matter") that Thailand is famous for still prevails. Everyone associates places they have travelled to with something special or memorable. Thoughts of the south always makes my mouth water thinking about the fresh bags of cashews that can be purchased from roadside vendors. They taste best slugged back with a few cold beers at the dusty restaurant cum-karaoke lounges with fold-out chairs and tables, an inside area with fans or air-conditioning if you're lucky, and usually supplemented with an outdoor patio and the ever-present string of coloured lights as the only real decoration.

Unfortunately the economy is hurting in the south, a culture of fear and suspicion has sprung up and worst of all people are unnecessarily dying at a fairly regular pace as a low-level civil war has been going on for the past 2 years, with barely a mention in the international press.

There is much history regarding the dispute between Buddhists and Muslims in the south dating back as far as 500 years. In its most recent incarnation during the past 50 years it is premised on claims of cultural insensitivity and lack of Muslim representation in the Thai government that many feel does not give a fair hearing to regional and religious concerns. Brief flare-ups that have included bombings, killings and various spells of heightened tension have been all part of the south of Thailand since that time (and especially since the early '70's) but never to this degree. Here I will simply highlight the events of the past year when things have taken another turn for the worse:

  • On January 4, 2004, Thailand wakes to the morning news that tells of the torching of 21 schools in the south the night before. Thankfully no one is hurt but this is the event that marks a palpable worsening of things in the 5 southern-most provinces.

  • On the same night (Jan.4) of coordinated violence and mayhem, a Thai army outpost is raided and a large cache of weapons are stolen. The assumption is made that Muslim extremists orchestrated the heist and will use them in future attacks (interesting follow-up on this one--the Thai government has now offered trips to Mecca for tips that might lead to recovery of the weapons.)

  • Following close on the heels of the arson attacks, a Buddhist monk is hacked to death. This gutless and shameless act was obviously intended to drive a wedge between the Buddhists and Muslims of Thailand and the pathos it elicited from anyone is an indication of how effective it was.

  • An innocent young Thai schoolgirl is also senselessly attacked and killed during this time frame. Again sickening it its complete absence of any mercy or humanity.

  • On April 28th, an organized morning attack by armed assailants sees an efficient and deadly response from the Thai army with 107 of the mostly young Muslim men leading the charge being killed. The quick response from the Thai army leads to speculation that they were tipped off and this fact is quickly confirmed. 30 of the attackers hole up in a mosque and are given one way tickets to eternity by the band of Thai soldiers who strafe their position with an eruption of gunfire. Not much sympathy for those slaughtered though at that point they had nowhere to go and if a more peaceful resolution had been sought it would have resulted in more sources of information for the government. A good point was also raised by some in the media that if the location had been a Buddhist temple it is unlikely the army would have been so quick to open up.

  • An MP from the ruling Thai Rak Thai party is arrested on charges of treason after being implicated in helping to plan the raid that took place on the army base in January. No clear detailed information has emerged but at the least it demonstrates how organized the insurgents are and how widespread the rage is that is motivating them.

  • Throughout this time there have been multiple small bombings including this one at the end of March and another one just this past week. Molotov cocktails tossed by riders on motorcycles have been common and some type of makeshift bomb using what appears to be propane tanks have been showing up as well.

  • An estimate of the number dead just from the heightened period starting in January of this year is as many as 300, including the Muslim youths killed in the raid and the remaining victims mainly Thai policemen.

This is where things stand at the moment. Martial law has been in effect since January and at one point 1000 schools were closed for a number of days as a precautionary measure. Not surprisingly, doctors, teachers and other government officials are balking at the prospect of being assigned to work in the south.

There are so many questions surrounding the conflict and the lack of any real investigation by journalists in the region (at least in the handful of English language outlets—ones with any real resources and actually doing independent digging) makes it difficult to come to any conclusions beyond speculation. Those launching the attacks are Muslims, they do want some grievances addressed and many involved do want a separate state.

At least one known group with specific demands is PULO (Pattani United Liberation Organization) which has been around since the 1970's and wants independence for the southern province of Pattani. They and probably other organizations are likely being supported with financing and weapons from other groups in the region and due to proximity, Malaysia is the country where most people point the finger. At the same time, anecdotal evidence indicates that many of the Thai Muslims don't support their tactics and some don't even share their wishes for reshaping the south. Many of the victims have been Muslim as well.

In the wake of 9/11 and the world-wide convulsions taking place it's hard not to believe there is some correlation to the events in the south of Thailand. The causation fallacy ("after this therefore because of this") is one of the most common and easiest to make. However, in this case I believe there is some validity to the connection between a general upswing in Muslim causes advanced by extremism, injustices (perceived and real) against Muslim people by the west and the severity of the current situation in Thailand.

The worsening of the overall situation has seen other events involving Muslim extremists play out in Thailand in recent years. Hambali was arrested here last year, and the recent report from the bipartisan 9/11 Commission in the US indicates that the plotters and bombers involved in the attacks may have met numerous times in Thailand leading up to the 2001 attacks against the US. Also, there are numerous countries surrounding Thailand with widespread abject poverty, corrupt officials and lingering hatred of the US from the cold-war era (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) that make them logical places for extremist recruitment, training and smuggling (of weapons and potential components and agents for chemical or dirty bombs) routes that may lead to Thailand.

Speaking of Hambali and Jemaah Islamiya, (the south-east Asian terror organization responsible for the Bali bombing and an apparent affiliate of Al-Qaeda) a human rights lawyer from the south who was also representing members of JI terror suspects in court cases in Thailand,has gone missing. No serious political issue in Thailand is ever complete without at least a few disappearances.

Within the context of the problems in the south, the greatest fear is that a major terrorist attack will take place in either Bangkok or one of the big tourist island destinations such as Phuket. Such an attack would force the government to end years of denials and obfuscation regarding the seriousness of this issue and would also focus world-wide attention on Thailand's problems. While people would be no less safe in Thailand following a major attack than they are now, of course the perception would gain traction and tourism would take major hits. Sadly, the prevailing thought is that it is just a matter of time.

Cross-posted at: Flogging the Simian