Thailand's militarist-Islamist squeeze

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Nov 20 14:35:48 UTC 2008

Thailand's militarist-Islamist squeeze
John Virgoe

The political sclerosis in Bangkok is distracting Thailand's leaders
from the urgent need to find creative solutions to the insurgency in
the south, says  John Virgoe.
19 - 11 - 2008

The return to democracy in Thailand following the military overthrow
of the populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006
has been messy. In the second half of 2008, the country's polity has
been riven by a deepening political crisis which has pitted the
government (now led by Somchai Wongsawat, and sympathetic to Thaksin)
against much of Bangkok's middle-class and the country's traditional
establishment and elite.
John Virgoe is southeast Asia project director at the International
Crisis Group. A by-product of the turmoil in Bangkok itself has been
that the bloody insurgency in Thailand's southernmost provinces is
becoming a forgotten war. Thais, numbed by the repeated atrocities and
in any case unsympathetic towards the grievances of Malay Muslims in
the south of Thailand, have lost interest. Yet the conflict remains

The prime minister, paying his first official visit to the south on 28
October 2008, said that the situation had "improved". There may have
been a temporary reduction in the number of attacks - an independent
monitoring group recorded "only" twenty-seven deaths and twenty-seven
injured in October, the lowest monthly casualty rate of 2008. But the
long-term prognosis is not good. The political paralysis in Bangkok
means that progress on the security front is not being followed up by
efforts to address the root causes of the conflict, which ultimately
lie in the Malay Muslims' rejection of attempts to assimilate them
into the predominantly-Buddhist Thai state. Moreover, there are
worrying signs of foreign jihadist groups taking an interest in the
situation - something that could seriously complicate what until now
has been a homegrown separatist insurgency.

An armed response

The conflict-zone is a sliver of land on the Malay peninsula, with a
population of around 2 million. The discontent here has simmered since
the 1902 annexation by Thailand (then known as Siam) of what had been
the kingdom of Patani. The latest outbreak of an on/off separatist
insurgency after this date started in 2004 and has already claimed
3,300 lives - a casualty-rate seven times that of the "troubles" in
Northern Ireland (a place of similar size and population).

The Muslims of this region - ethnically, religiously and
linguistically distinct from the majority Thai Buddhist population -
have more in common with their cousins across the border in Malaysia
(and indeed they lobbied for annexation by British Malaya following
the second world war, when that country had returned to colonial
rule). The community exists uneasily in a Thailand which has
historically preferred to assimilate minorities rather than celebrate
ethnic diversity. The scholar Duncan McCargo has observed that the
"shared shibboleth 'Nation, Religion, King'", intended to bind Thais
together as a nation, "failed to resonate in Patani". Patani (or
"Pattani") separatist propaganda emphasises the distinct identity and
the glorious history of the region. Accounts of indoctrination
activities in Islamic schools reveal extensive discussion of the
history of Patani, with potential recruits motivated as well by
pan-Malay sentiment, and the abusive behaviour of the Thai security

Some of the Malay Muslims' main grievances, reflecting the importance
of identity politics and resisting assimilation, centre on education
and language policy. But schools have become major battlegrounds in
more than a figurative sense: there have been numerous brutal murders
of teachers, singled out as state agents who indoctrinate Thai-ness
into Malay Muslim kids. After the coup which ousted Thaksin Shinawatra
in September 2006, the military-installed government announced its
priorities were to bring about reconciliation in the country, and to
resolve the conflict in the south. By the time it handed power back to
a democratically elected government in February 2008, it was clear it
had failed to achieve either goal. There were positive steps, such as
an apology for past abuses in the south and some useful changes to
security structures, but these were not followed up with actual
measures to address Malay Muslim concerns. Indeed, the imposition of
draconian security legislation has led to further abuses.

Moreover, the return of democracy did nothing to resolve Thailand's
political polarisation. The December 2007 election saw a massive
victory by the People Power Party (PPP), a proxy for Thaksin
Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party, which was disbanded by a court
ruling following the coup. But the forces which opposed Thaksin
continue to plague the PPP. The first post-election prime minister,
Samak Sundaravej, was disqualified from office by the courts for the
surprising offence of accepting payment for hosting a TV cookery show.
His neophyte successor, Somchai Wongsawat, faces a sea of troubles -
in the courts and on the streets - which threaten his government's
survival and divert attention from the stumbling economy as well as
the conflict in the south.

The successive prime ministers, preoccupied with their political woes
and needing to retain the backing of Thailand's powerful military,
have been willing to let the army take the lead in the south. The army
commander General Anupong Paochinda has pursued a vigorous approach
which has involved reorganising the command structure, putting more
boots on the ground and conducting "sweeping" operations to round up
suspects. All this has led to a reduction in the number of attacks in
2008, though there have been more "spectacular" large-scale attacks,
including an assault on a train in June 2008 which killed four people
and halted all rail services for a week. But any improvement seems
likely to prove temporary. In any case, any tactical advances have
come at the price of increased human-rights abuses, and a policy of
mass detentions which risks increasing resentment and radicalisation.

A policy vacuum

To the extent the insurgents are temporarily on the defensive, now
would be a good time to take decisive steps to address the root causes
of the conflict.  These include accountability for past and continuing
human-rights abuses; language, cultural and education rights; and
demands for more self-government. But the government seems unwilling
or unable to focus on this agenda: unwilling because some may
genuinely see the conflict as a purely military problem, unable
because of the distraction of Bangkok politics. Since taking office,
the current government has made no policy initiative on the south.

This policy vacuum is leading to dangerous freelancing. In July 2008,
one retired general presented a supposed ceasefire announcement from
self-proclaimed insurgent leaders on Thai TV, to general surprise; the
real insurgents continued their attacks without a break. In September,
there were claims of a breakthrough in peace talks hosted by
Indonesian vice-president Jusuf Kalla; these turned out to be equally
fictive when both the Thai government and the rebel groups denied
taking part. It transpired that both the retired Thai general and
Jusuf Kalla had been bamboozled into dealing with minor rebel figures.
This sort of thing raises false hopes in the south, undermines the
government's credibility and shows a lack of coherence in approaches
to the region.

Another dangerous development is the increasing interest in the
conflict being shown by jihadist groups in Malaysia and Indonesia. The
insurgency is entirely self-grown, and there is no evidence that the
southern insurgents have received any support from foreign jihadist
groups. There is nothing in the curriculum of the insurgents'
indoctrination classes to support the idea that they are part of a
wider Islamist jihadi movement. On the contrary, the agenda appears
exclusively localist, with little discussion of the suffering of
Muslim brothers in Palestine or Chechnya of the kind that is a
prominent part of jihadi discourse in Indonesia. The traditional and
Sufi practices of members of the insurgency - such as the use of magic
charms and oaths - would be anathema to the strict Salafists of Jemaah
Islamiyah (JI). Moreover, conversations with young recruits reveal
strong antipathy to the Wahhabi brand of Islam to which JI adheres.

The ethno-nationalist nature of the insurgency is no cause for
complacency, however.  Instead, it should be a reason to address the
conflict quickly, while it is still amenable to a political approach.
Justine Rosentall has argued that movements can morph, as lack of
progress leads to frustrations and foreigners arrive to press their
own agendas, as happened in Chechnya and is happening now in Algeria.
This will not happen easily in the case of the Malay Muslim
insurgency, with its localist focus. But it could happen if the
government neglects the search for political solutions and
frustrations mount.

A number of foreign jihadist websites are starting to give more
attention to what they describe as the jihad in "Pattani Darussalam".
Against the evidence, they claim that the struggle is a genuine
Islamic one, not one "poisoned by nationalism". With religious
conflicts in Indonesia - in the Moluccas and Poso - essentially at an
end, southeast Asian radical groups are actively looking for new
jihads to fight, raising the possibility that foreign jihadists will
travel to the region. Indeed, two Malaysians were arrested there in
June 2008 while attempting to steal a motorbike. They told the police
that they had wanted to wage jihad and had been recruited and
indoctrinated, one in Johor and one near Kuala Lumpur - both far from
the Thai border. But there is no evidence that they had successfully
linked up with local insurgents.

No time to lose

A separatist movement with a political agenda is potentially
susceptible to political solutions. Those solutions may not be easily
achievable and are complicated in the case of southern Thailand by the
absence of an identifiable, above-ground political leadership with
whom the Thai state might negotiate. But there are nonetheless
political measures which could be taken unilaterally by the
government, such as granting official status to the Malay language and
ensuring accountability for human-rights abuses by the military. Such
measures, coupled with effective security actions (which do not
further radicalise the population as do, for example, mass
detentions), could help deradicalise the bulk of the population and
reduce support for the insurgency. By contrast, an Islamist jihad
requires an entirely different mix of policy measures, and is less
susceptible to a final settlement.

It may seem unrealistic to argue that the Thai government should
undertake a serious policy initiative on the south at a time when it
is locked in deep political conflict in Bangkok. But unfortunately,
waiting for an end to Bangkok's political crisis may mean waiting a
very long time. The south cannot afford to wait.

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