The continuing unrest in Southern Thailand since January 2004 to present day has resulted in more than 3,611 deaths and injured about 6,073 persons

Malaysian PM readies for visit to deep South

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak will visit Bangkok in early December before joining Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on a tour of the three southernmost provinces

Muslim Malay of Patani

The Patani Malays or Muslim Malay of Patani are living primarily in Patani Raya, the southern provinces of Thailand..

The Ancient City of Yarang

The ancient city of Yarang was one of the biggest communities in the early historical period in the south of Thailand and believed to be the location of the ancient domain name “ Langkasuka”

Anatomy of a Forgotten Conflict

The only long-term solution combines firm action against the perpetrators of violence and "substantive autonomy" for the three southernmost provinces

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Muslim Insurgency in Southern Thailand

Jayshree Bajoria, Senior Staff Writer
Carin Zissis

Over the past four years, an insurgency in Thailand's southern, predominantly Muslim provinces has claimed nearly three thousand lives. The separatist violence in these majority Malay Muslim provinces has a history traceable back for more than half a century. Some experts say brutal counterinsurgency tactics by successive governments in Bangkok have worsened the situation. Political turmoil in Bangkok and tussle between supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the country's military have further contributed to the instability, working to stymie any serious initiatives for a long-term solution to the crisis.

Thailand's map conflict Border provinces

Historical Grievances

hailand has faced secessionist movements since it annexed the independent sultanate of Patani [Note: Thailand's annexed sultanate is spelled "Patani"; the country's southern province is spelled "Pattani"] in 1902, making the area the southernmost tip of the country. A policy of forced assimilation enraged the ethnically Malay Muslims, who represent the majority in the region. Many of the region's Muslims adopted Thai names and the national language. But local traditions were secretly cultivated, and between the 1940s and the 1980s separatists staged a series of opposition uprisings. The insurgency is largely confined to the three provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat and five districts of Songkhla province—Chana, Thepa, Na Thawi, Saba Yoi, and Sadao. An August 2008 report by the International Crisis Group says the religious, racial, and linguistic differences between the minority Malay Muslims and the Buddhist majority in Thailand have led to a deep sense of alienation (PDF). Malay Muslims also harbor resentment against the country's security forces for past and continuing human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, the report says. Poor socio-economic conditions add to regional discontentment with the Thai government. In the 1980s, the Thai government reversed its assimilation policy under the premiership of General Prem Tinsulanonda. Prem supported cultural rights and economic development in the historically marginalized region, and also worked with the Malaysian government to enhance security in the southern border area. By the late 1990s, the separatist movement fell quiet. But when Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister in 2001, a new series of separatist attacks began. His government responded aggressively, causing renewed bloodshed. Many blame his reaction for exacerbating tensions. Joseph Liow Chin Yong, an expert on Southeast Asian Muslim politics at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, says the current violence stems from Thaksin's "policy missteps, one after another." 

Mishandling by Government

The latest conflict, since 2004, is in part a consequence of bad government policies,experts say. First the heavy-handed approach by Thaksin's government, and then the lack of any real progress addressing the South's grievances by successive military and civilian governments, have led to continued violence.
  • Thaksin's Policies: After becoming prime minister in 2001, Thaksin, a former policeman, tried to expand his influence in the Muslim south, a bastion of support for opponents of his political party. The resulting militant backlash and unrest were "an unintended consequence of [Thaksin's] political strategy," says Aurel Croissant, a professor of comparative politics at Ruprecht-Karls University in Heidelberg. Thaksin abolished key conflict-management structures; the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center set up in 1981 under General Prem to serve as a liaison between southern Muslim leaders and Bangkok, and a joint civilian-police-military task force.
    The military imposed martial law in the insurgent provinces in January 2004 and two incidents the same year; standoff (Asia Times) in April between security forces and insurgents leading to over one hundred deaths, and the mishandling of a demonstration (BBC) by Muslims outside a police station in the village of Tak Bai in October, resulted in widespread international condemnation of Thaksin's government. Thaksin replaced martial law with an emergency decree in July 2005 which transferred authority back to the government. However, this gave police and civilian authorities significant powers to restrict certain basic rights, delegated certain internal security powers to the armed forces, and provided security forces broad immunity from prosecution, notes the U.S. State Department's 2007 report on human rights.
Military Rule: The military seized control from Thaksin in September 2006 after widespread accusations of corruption and associated nationwide protests weakened his grip on power. Although the southern insurgency may not have been the central reason for the coup, it was an important factor. When Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, a prominent Thai Muslim charged with ending the southern insurgency, counseled the prime minister to negotiate with southern militants, Thaksin ignored his advice. Sonthi went on to lead the military coup.
Surayud Chulanont, the interim prime minister installed by coup leaders, took a more conciliatory approach to the insurgency. He apologized for Thaksin's hard-line policies, called for dropping charges against the October 2004 Tak Bai protesters, and pledged to recruit more Muslims into official roles in the three troubled southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. The military government reestablished the conflict-management structures abolished by Thaksin. The junta and separatist groups held a series of peace talks hosted by Malaysia, the country to the south which Thai's southern Muslims consider "a brother country," says Croissant. However, the new policies failed to produce tangible results, and 2007 saw the highest casualty rate since the violence surged in 2004, reports the International Crisis Group. Human Rights Watch reports that separatists increasinglytargeted civilians, particularly Buddhists living in the Muslim-majority states. The report cites the Thai Journalists Association to note 526 attacks in the first six months of 2008, resulting in 301 deaths.  Even after a civilian government came into power in January 2008, the insurgency-ridden South continued to be under martial law as well as the emergency decree. Experts say together they granted more power to the security forces than ever before.
The daily casualties
Negotiating with the Insurgent  One of the biggest obstacles in controlling the insurgency is the government's inability to identify who is orchestrating insurgent attacks. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks or made specific demands. "Keeping quiet has worked to [the insurgents'] advantage, baffling the Thai security forces, and giving them a mysterious aura," writes Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia terrorism expert at Simmons College in Boston. With no specific groups stepping forward to demand concessions, the government has attempted to solve the problem by negotiating with longstanding separatist groups. Liow says this signals that the insurgents "have the upper hand" over the Thai state and have no need "to reach out for the olive branch that is being offered." However, Bangkok has engaged in talks with some of the following groups it thinks play a role in the insurgency:
  • Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C). Possibly the largest and best organized of the separatist groups, the BRN-C is the only active faction of an organization founded in the early 1960s to fight for an independent, religious state. The group recruits members from Islamic schools.
  • Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO). Part of a second wave of more secular separatist groups, this guerilla organization was established in 1968. A splinter called New PULO split from the group in 1995, but the two factions allied again two years later. Most of its leaders are based abroad.
  • Bersatu. An umbrella organization of various southern terrorist groups, Bersatu was founded in 1989. The coalition counts PULO and BRN among its members. This merger may have resulted from their weakening during the 1980s.
  • Gerakan Mujahadeen Islam Pattani (GMIP). Established in part by Afghan veterans in 1995 to support a separate Islamic state, GMIP likely has connections to a Malaysian counterpart called Kumpulan Mujahadeen Malay.
Support from Foreign Militants
Foreign support—whether in the form of arms, money, or ideological influence—for the southern separatist movement remains difficult to ascertain due to a lack of clarity over the groups responsible for attacks. Croissant suggests that educational opportunities extended to Thai Muslims by Islamic nations have functioned as a kind of Trojan horse for outside influence. Thai Muslims, long denied equal educational opportunities, study abroad in the Middle East and Pakistan. Many return to Thailand to instruct in southern religious schools, causing a surge in more radical Islamic teachings in recent years. But while Thai militants may increasingly use the language of jihadi extremism, the movement remains local, writes Liow in areport published by the East-West Center. He says ascribing the character of the current insurgency "to the seductive appeal of radical Islam is a gross simplification" of a complex situation involving "politics, nationalism, history, and identity." A2008 paper (PDF) by the Rand Corporation argues "precisely because Thailand's southern border provinces continue to be characterized by an extremely strong sense of Malay-Muslim self-identity, they have a built-in barrier against external penetration."
Malaysia's Role 
Malaysia plays a historical role in the southern separatist movement, not just because its proximity has allowed insurgent leaders to slip across the border, but because the majority of Thai Muslims are ethnically Malay and some groups have argued that joining Malaysia would be preferable to remaining a part of Thailand. While there is frequently a diplomatic salvo of allegations and responding denials from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur alleging that militants are being trained in Malaysia, there is little evidence to prove that this is indeed the case, writes Abuza in the Terrorism Monitor. From the Malaysian perspective, one of the root causes of the problem is poor socio-economic conditions. Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, writes in the March 2007 Terrorism Monitorthat the Malaysian government does not support the southern insurgency and, fearing spillover into its own territory, has a vested interest in seeing stability return to the area. However, he writes, there is a lot of sympathy from people in the northern Malaysian states for their ethnic brethren across the border.
Possible Solutions
Experts say it will help if there is more representation by Malay Muslims in the local administrative structure. This ICG report (PDF) says the government must address areas of education, past injustice, and development. The insurgency-ridden provinces are some of the poorest provinces in Thailand. To boost economic development in the area, the government included them in the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle, started a special economic development zone with tax incentives for those willing to invest in the area, and is working bilaterally with Malaysia to develop the border region. However, some experts remain skeptical about the prospects for these efforts, particularly as violence continues.
A Role for the United States 
The insurgency in Thailand has important implications for the United States as Bangkok is a long-term military ally in the war against terrorism in Southeast Asia and a significant trade and economic partner. Thailand also contributed troops and support for U.S. military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq and was designated as a major non-NATO ally by President Bush in December 2003. Its airfields and ports play a significant role in U.S. global military strategy, including having served as the primary hub of the relief effort following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Nicholas P. Vavich, a major in the U.S. Marines, argues in thispaper (PDF) that the insurgency's potential to expand in the future poses a threat to U.S. strategic interests in the region. He writes Washington should work closely with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to help resolve the conflict and tie future U.S. aid to Thailand to improved democratic reform, human rights, and projects to stimulate growth and jobs in the south.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tak Bai massacre anniversary: 15 blasts in Yala, Thailand South

Yala - Suspected Muslim insurgents caused more than a dozen co-ordinated explosions on Tuesday in a town in Thailand's troubled south, killing at least one civilian and two militants, a local official said.
Fifteen blasts were heard across Yala, causing chaos according to the town's governor Krisada Boonrach. He confirmed three deaths, including two militants  who were killed when what were thought to be home-made bombs exploded prematurely.
An AFP photographer at a local hospital said more than 50 wounded people, some in a serious condition, had arrived for medical treatment after the attacks, which caused a power blackout across the city.
The explosions are the latest in a series of increasingly brazen attacks by shadowy rebels in the Muslim-majority Thai south, which has been plagued by more than eight years of conflict claiming more than 4 800 lives.
On Sunday at least seven people were killed in back-to-back shooting and bomb attacks in a town in neighbouring Narathiwat province.
Late last month, more than a dozen suspected insurgents attacked a school in Narathiwat, killing four soldiers and seriously wounding one child.
The insurgents are not thought to be part of a global jihad movement but rather are rebelling against a long history of perceived discrimination against ethnic Malay Muslims by governments in the Buddhist-majority nation.
Deep South Watch, which closely monitors the conflict, said earlier this year that more than half of the victims are Muslims, many apparently targeted because they are seen as traitors for cooperating with the local authorities.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

When will we really understand the South?

Politicians are afraid to admit that the southern insurgency is a historical,   not criminal problem

This has not been a good week for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is planning to make his first trip to the deep South since taking office last month. First, there was the posting of an amateur video on YouTube showing a group of gun-toting Thai soldiers kicking, punching and slapping what appeared to be a helpless Malay-Muslim teenager. The clip was posted under the title "Pattani  menangis", which, in Malay, basically means, "Pattani in tears", with a flashing statement saying, "This is how they investigate suspects in Southern Thailand".Then came the report by Amnesty International about the systematic use of torture on suspected militants in the region. AI found 34 cases of ill treatment and said that at least four people had died as a result of torture. The true figure could be much higher because suspects only started coming forward with their stories just over a year ago.Given the level of violence, it is understandable that frustrations run extremely high in the region. Many officials have lost friends and colleagues in bombings and ambushes carried out by insurgents. But while the insurgents have "engaged in brutal acts, nothing justifies the security forces' reliance on torture," said Donna Guest, deputy director of AI's Asia-Pacific programme.As expected, the Thai public appears indifferent to these incidents. The idea of losing public support on this matter may be one of the reasons why the government has been reluctant to take a pro-active approach over these incidents.Generally speaking, governments condemn the use of torture. But as the report illustrates, there is a culture of impunity in this country in which the authorities tend to turn a blind eye to the problem until journalists and researchers bring it up. Doing the right thing is not difficult as long as you have some degree of integrity and courage. Must the government wait for an uproar before it comes forward to say more than just, "We are looking into it?"It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the use of torture further alienates the southern population, the very people the Thai government says it wants to win over. The daily violence, on the other hand, continues unabated with no end in sight.In spite of these hiccups, the Abhisit government should be complemented for starting off on the right foot. 

Abhisit has said that past governments' approaches to the deep South have been too security-oriented while ignoring other factors such as culture, history and identity. Abhisit is also looking to restore civilian supremacy to the region, where the Army has been the dominant power. Draft legislation is being prepared to systematise a new, civilian-led agency, but the real test will be how far Abhisit is willing to go in terms of resisting the Army's influence on the outcome. As it is, the military stands to lose a great deal of power, not to mention money, if and when the new administrative body comes into being.For the past five years the Army has dabbled in everything from security to development, believing that its good intentions, along with its inflated budget, would be enough to win hearts and minds in the Malay historical homeland.The angry young men behind the daily bombings and shootings are part of a long line of militants who surface in the deep South generation after generation. Even if Thai soldiers succeed in killing all of the current crop, history shows that in a matter of time a new generation will surface. We don't seem to understand that we are not just fighting cells of young militants, but a national spirit. Like insurgencies elsewhere, the one in southern Thailand runs in social networks of family and friends, and is held together by a cultural narrative that sees the Thais as the illegitimate rulers of the Malay homeland.

Credit: The Nation

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Talks the only way forward for southern Thailand

In her customary birthday-eve address last Thursday, Thailand's Queen Sirikit told prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra one of her top concerns was the ongoing violence in the south. Ms Yingluck has proposed a similar degree of autonomy for the region as in Bangkok and Pattaya, which elect their governors. In other provinces, governors are appointed by Bangkok. But army chief general Prayuth Chan-ocha has publicly called the idea ''premature.'' 

Talks in various regional capitals between a government backed delegation and representatives of southern Malay Muslim insurgent groups, are paused because of the change of guard in Bangkok.
But analysts say the only way forward is to continue to talk, despite the apparent lack of breakthroughs.
Chulalongkorn University professor of political science Panitan Wattanayagorn, until recently spokesman for former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva who backed the talks, said the new government ‘’should maintain some level of communication to increase trust and confidence.’’
‘’Any discontinuation would not be good for the long term future.’’
Kasturi Mahkota, usually based in Sweden and representing the Pattani United Liberation Front (PULO), who has been a part of the talks, told The Straits Times ‘’We are waiting for a signal from the Yingluck government.’’
Thailand's Narathiwat province has seen two violent prison riots in three months - the latest on Thursday.
Almost daily roadside bombs and ambushes mainly targeted at security forces, and symbols and collaborators of the Thai state - official and civilians including monks - continue to puncture the peace in the Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani.
Security forces strike back with raids and detentions - and occasionally torture. Muslim religious figures are often targets. The militarization of the region is evident from roadblocks, armed patrols, and army camps surrounded by razor wire and sandbags.
The death toll after just seven years of the current cycle of violence stands at well over 4,500 - more than all those killed in 30 years of conflict between the United Kingdom and northern Ireland's Irish Republican Army.
Some 30-40 per cent of the violent incidents may be due to personal and criminal conflicts and vendettas; the region is also awash with guns in the hands of militias and criminals, and tit for tat killings are almost commonplace.
The ongoing violence shows that while the Thai army has contained the militant insurgency to a degree, separatists have increased levels of professionalism and continue to recruit, noted Anthony Davis this month in Jane's Intelligence Review.
Davis noted that ‘’on average nearly 50 people were killed and 75 injured every month over the first half of 2011 in violent incidents in the region, adding to a toll that has exceeded 4,600 dead and 7,000 wounded since January 2004.’’
‘’The underground separatist community has not merely survived but adapted and matured, while developing new skill sets and levels of competence.’’
There remains a wide gulf between the view of the conflict from Bangkok, and that of the Malay Muslims in the south.
‘’The southern Thai conflict is a war over legitimacy’’ professor Duncan McCargo of the UK's Leeds University wrote in his 2009 book ''Tearing Apart the Land.''
‘’For significant numbers of Patani Malays, Thai rule over their region has long lacked legitimacy.’’
‘’Substantive autonomy - probably called something else - is probably the only long-term solution that might satisfy most parties to the conflict.’’
Through the lens of the Bangkok establishment, autonomy opens the door to independence. On a recent day visit to the south after the election, when he was still foreign minister, Mr Kasit Piromya who now sits in parliament as part of the opposition, wondered aloud at the nature of the grievances of Malay Muslims.
He pointed out - correctly - that the Muslim population had complete religious and cultural freedom. But he made no mention of the issue of justice, and said talk of autonomy would stall any negotiations at the gate.
Separately, a mid-level ministry of foreign affairs official insisted that militants constituted only a small minority. Yet she was unable to explain how a small minority could survive without popular sympathy, if not active support.
‘’That is typical of Bangkok’’ said Don Pathan, a prominent Thai journalist based in Yala. ‘’But Malay Muslims have their own narrative, their own heroes.’’
But even Mr Kasit said there was no option but to continue dialogue.
Each side, however, needs to offer a concession. The insurgent representatives need to show the militants they have the clout to wrest a concession. And the Thai state wants proof that the men in the talks can call a halt to attacks - something that is not entirely clear.
While there have been small signs of progress in the south, much more has remained unchanged. Rights activist Pornpen Khongkachonkiet of the independent Cross Cultural Foundation which is active in the south, in an interview said ‘’I am doing the same thing I was doing five years ago. I'm looking for details of three detainees. I'm trying to find out where they are. Two have been missing for three months.’’
However, that talks have been taking place at all - involving Thailand's National Security Council and a senior army general - is a good sign, said an analyst who is closely following the process.
‘’Mountains have moved’’ he said. ‘’If you compare where we are to two years ago, it is extraordinary.’’
‘’The government has made tremendous progress in engaging with insurgent groups in open-ended dialogue which has official status, with the army involved, and the army chief kept informed.’’
Recently a group of civil society representatives, both Buddhists and Muslims, also held talks with representatives of insurgency groups outside Thailand.
Noted Anthony Davis : ‘’In a break with traditional mindsets, both insurgent representatives and the National Security Council.. have separately conceded that the role of civil society will be central in formulating solutions to the conflict.’’
av Nirmal Ghosh kl. den 15 augusti 2011 kl. 15:53

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Analysis: A debate over autonomy in Thailand's restive south

YALA, Thailand (Reuters) - The motorcycle bomb burned the 27-year-old woman so badly her father only recognized her by a tattoo. She lost half her face and an arm in the attack by shadowy Muslim separatists in Thailand's troubled deep south.
"The wound was awful. She must have suffered enormously," said her father, Athorn Buakwan, a Buddhist farmer, as he held a framed photograph of his daughter and recalled his frantic search for her on the afternoon she was killed and 17 others were wounded in a market in the capital of Yala province.
That February 21 attack is one of many illustrating the growing sophistication of a Muslim insurgency that has killed at least 4,500 people since 2004 in Thailand's three southernmost provinces, a region of dense jungles and rubber plantations just a few hours' drive from world-class beach resorts.
Contained within a far-flung fringe of Thailand, the conflict gets scant attention from international media. And yet the death toll it has brought over just seven years exceeds the casualties in Northern Ireland's three decades of troubles.
Now, as a security force of 60,000 to struggles to contain the violence, Thailand's July 3 election is reviving a debate over how to end it. With no easy answers and more violence looking inevitable, the campaign is touching a taboo in Buddhist Thailand: more political power for its minority Muslims.
A central question is whether the provinces on Malaysia's doorstep - Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani - should be allowed greater autonomy, a sensitive issue in Thailand which annexed the region in 1909 when it was an independent Malay sultanate.
Successive governments have sought, with mixed results, to assimilate the population into the Thai Buddhist mainstream.
About 94 percent of its 1.7 million people are Muslim, the dominant Malay religion, and about 80 percent speak a Malay dialect as a first language, according to a 2010 survey by the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation.
They chafe at the presence of Buddhist provincial governors appointed by the Interior Ministry in Bangkok and want more say in their own affairs - from adding Islam and local history to a Buddhist-influenced Thai school curriculum to bilingual street signs in Thai and Malay.
"If you talk to people on all sides of the political divide they recognize the need for decentralization of power, but it is unspeakable," said Duncan McCargo, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds.
"Admitting you need to decentralize power in the south is to admit there is a problem with the legitimacy of the Thai state. And to admit that is to go back to what the Thai state is based on, which is arguably the shibboleth of the nation, religion, king," he added. "Once you start to admit there is a problem with that, you are in danger of treasonous sentiments."
But the issue is making headlines. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva flew to Yala on Tuesday, promising more power to municipalities if his Democrat Party wins the election, a shift from past policies focused on economic and social development but not quite the semi-autonomy locals want.
After coming to power in 2008, he declared politics, not the army, would bring peace. But the unrelenting bloodshed, and the absence of a Muslim in his cabinet, could cost him votes.
After winning 11 of the region's 12 seats in a 2005 election, they took just five in the next poll in 2007. Locals say he will struggle to hold those.
His rival and national front-runner, Yingluck Shinawatra, a sister of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, said in Yala last week that she would turn the three provinces into a special administrative zone with one elected governor.
The proposal faced swift criticism from army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was instrumental in the coup that toppled her brother. "Any action that may serve to undermine our strength or weaken state authority should be of concern," he said. "What is important is that Thais are Thais."
Not all Muslims embrace her idea, either. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed by the Asia Foundation opposed folding the provinces into a single elected government. Most want elected governors in all three provinces.
Yingluck has another problem: her brother is blamed for fuelling the dramatic rise in violence from 2004. He dismantled a southern security body and replaced it with an abusive and heavy-handed force. But while in power from 2001 to 2006, he appointed a Muslim to a ministerial role, winning some support.
Former army chief Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, a prominent Muslim who oversaw the 2006 coup, has launched his own party, Matubhum, and predicts he will win at least eight seats -- enough to have influence in a possible coalition government.
He reckons he can solve the conflict within the year. His solution: a ministry that would tackle the unrest and direct election of governors in the three provinces.
The insurgency is becoming more tactical, better organized and more precise in its hits, experts say. In the first five months of this year, for instance, militants set off five car bombs, compared with just three over the whole of 2010.
The number of violent incidents, mostly gunfire and bombs, averaged about 70 a month from January to May, killing an average 41 people a month, up slightly from last year.
"What is happening is that these guys are getting much better at what they do. In effect, they are today leaner and meaner," said Anthony Davis, an analyst at IHS Jane's, a global security consulting firm.
"They are getting a bigger bang for their buck in terms of the resources they put in - from manpower to time, intelligence and preparation. Consequently the casualty rate is higher."
The insurgents' goals are murky but are believed to involve separatism or at least greater autonomy. However, Western diplomats believe only about half of the violence is insurgency-related, with the rest linked to the drug trade or organized crime.
Most experts believe attacks are organized by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) Coordinate, an offshoot of the Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front established in the 1960s to seek independence.
Another group, the Patani United Liberation Front (PULO), publicly calls for a separatist state and claims to control much of the insurgency.

"I hope this election will bring a strong Thai government. For the past 10 years, it has been very weak governments who cannot make any decisions," said Kasturi Mahkota, foreign affairs chief of PULO who lives in Sweden and has led talks with the Thai government on ending the fighting.
He said talks were on hold pending the election after a meeting in May in Manila at which the government agreed, as a gesture of goodwill, to try to release a PULO militant who was arrested by Malaysian authorities in 1998 and remains in a Thai prison.
"If they release him, that would show us if their side has power enough to make decisions," said Kasturi.
Amid the almost-daily violence, Muslims and Buddhists who lived harmoniously together for generations are increasingly drifting apart.
"In the past, we were friends with Muslims," said Athorn, whose daughter was killed. "Now, it's distant. Both sides fear one another. It looks like they want Buddhists out so they can rule the area."
More Muslims have been killed than Buddhists in the insurgency because they are often targeted for working for the state or businesses tied to Buddhists, or for refusing to cooperate with insurgents. Indeed, the Asia Foundation poll showed more people fear the insurgents than the military.
"When I leave for work, I feel scared," said Aminah Kaming, a soft-spoken 30-year-old Muslim in Lam Mai district whose husband was shot dead by suspected insurgents while cutting grass. There were no witnesses and, out of fear, she refuses to speculate over who killed him.

(Editing by Alan Raybould and John Chalmers)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

From Gold Leaves to Minaret

The intersecting calls of the muezzins pierce the sweltering equatorial air as Ahmad Abdurrahman, imam of Narathiwat's central mosque, arrives on a racketing and underpowered moped to lead the noon prayer. "We're 80 percent Muslim here," he says, with an engaging smile.
Climb to the top of the minaret of Abdurrahman's modern, almost futuristic, mosque and he will show you a stunning view: palm-fringed beaches running along the South China Sea, wooden fishing boats moored in jostling huddles in the creek and lush plantations of oil palms and rubber trees that stretch to a mountainous horizon.
This is Thailand, and it looks like paradise - complete with a serpent named poverty.
Economic growth, however robust, has a hard time eradicating the country's rural poverty and urban squalor, particularly here in Thailand's deep south. Narathiwat is only 840 kilometers (520 miles) as the crow flies from the capital Bangkok - but it might as well lie in another country in terms of race, religion, culture and even language.
"The Muslims are the poorest people in Thailand," imam Ahmad says. "We need government assistance." Eighty kilometers (50 miles) to the northwest, Chamnong Koomrak, governor of Pattani province, replies, "We're trying.... Our budget is growing by 10 percent a year. We give special privileges to Muslims to enter university and we want to develop the south, in fisheries, food-processing and tourism."

The truth is that there are few shortcuts to development anywhere. Both the government in Bangkok and the Muslim electorate in Thailand's southern provinces of Pattani, Satun, Narathiwat and Yala know that the key to prosperity is education. For the authorities, that means instruction in the Thai language. The people of the south agree - but they intend at the same time to preserve their religion and their culture.
The result is a fascinating renaissance of Muslim awareness spreading across the narrow, elongated arm of land that reaches down from the body of Buddhist Thailand in the north to the Muslim nation of Malaysia in the south. You see it every where, from the simple yet elegant central mosque in Pattani to the corrugated-iron mosques of the fishing villages along the eastern coast. You see it, too, among the 1,700 students who cram the classrooms of Narathiwat's Islamic Foundation for Education, built 20 years ago with a donation from the late King Faysal of Saudi Arabia. And you sense it in the faces of the tiny children learning Arabic from Jitsom bint Salih in a one-room madrasa, or Qur'anic school, in the sand-swept coastal hamlet of Ban Budi.
So who are these Thai Muslims? To government statisticians they are one of Thailand's minorities, perhaps four percent of a population now numbering about 55 million, overwhelmingly concentrated in the far south. To their Buddhist compatriots they are known as khaek, a word that means "visitor" in the Thai language - though the Muslims came to the region several centuries before the Thais.
To any real visitor, however - afarang or foreigner from overseas - the ethnic identity of the Muslims is obvious: They are Malay, just like their neighbors and relatives in the northern Malaysian states of Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis. The two groups dress the same way: patterned sarong and white skullcap or angular black songkok hat for the men, long-sleeved dress and dawa head-scarf for the women. They speak the same Malay language, although many of the fishing families have a dialect all their own. And, most of all, they worship God in the same way, recoiling from the ornamented figures of Buddhism, Thailand's state religion. The fact that they bear Thai, not Malaysian, citizenship has nothing to do with cultural affinity - but it has everything to do with the politics of the past.
The Malays originated on the island of Borneo, now divided between Malaysia's Sabah and Sarawak and Indonesia's Kalimantan. About 1,500 years ago they began an expansion that took them south and west through the islands of Indonesia and northward to the Philippines and the Malay Peninsula. Meanwhile, the Thais - originating perhaps in southeastern China - were expanding southward in competition with peoples like the Shans, Mons and the Khmers of today's Kampuchea. The inevitable meeting of Thai and Malay came around the beginning of the 13th century.

But this meeting was not a clash of nations in any modern sense. Southeast Asia nearly 800 years ago was a shifting patchwork of kingdoms, each vying for tribute and influence but not necessarily for conquest. The Siamese, as the Thais used to be known, had one kingdom - but so did the Khmers, while to the south there were the kingdoms of Majahapit and Langchia. Just as the medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun theorized, when a state was vigorous, it expanded in territory and influence at the expense of weaker states - until the weak in turn became strong and led a fresh cycle of change.
Today's Muslim provinces of southern Thailand are the descendants of Malay kingdoms that in the Middle Ages paid tribute - in the form of bunga mas, or ornamental flowers of gold and silver - to the king of Siam. The payment of flowers showed a degree of loyalty to the king, and dependence on his protection against rival forces. It hardly mattered that the Siamese were purveyors of the region's Buddhist and Hindu tradition, while the Malays were 14th-century converts to Islam. What was at stake was power, not culture.
Yet it is the cultural difference between Thailand's Buddhist majority and Muslim minority that has imbued the south with its distinct flavor. This has survived the centuries, from the days when flowers were given as tribute to the modern era of representation - by a handful of Muslim deputies - in Thailand's National Assembly in Bangkok.

The mosque and the pondok, a religious boarding school for young Muslims, were the reason the culture survived. They still are, though the pondok is fast disappearing in favor of the madrasa, which receives government help in return for teaching secular subjects, including the Thai language, alongside the religious curriculum.
Turn off the main highway between Pattani and Narathiwat, go a kilometer or so along a mud road between glistening, luminous-green rice paddies, and you come to the Telok Manok mosque, built more than 300 years ago. Only a small minaret reminds you of Islam's Arabian origins; otherwise, the building, with walls and floor of heavy wood and roof of small, scalloped red tiles, is more reminiscent of an Indonesian longhouse.
The Telok Manok mosque is part of an Islamic tradition that remains real for almost all Thai Muslims. Late on a rainswept afternoon, we met young men there who were making a form of pilgrimage to the region's oldest mosque. Muhammad Said and Muhammad Hashim had both come from their homes in the Malaysian state of Perak. They were visiting their Thai friends, Muhammad Bidi Talodin and his cousin Ramli Talodin. We conversed in neither Thai nor Malay but in Arabic: Muhammad Bidi learned the language as a student in Benghazi, Libya, and 30-year-old Ramli had spent four years in Kuwait and six in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he graduated with a degree in education. Now he teaches at the Islamic Foundation school in Narathiwat, keeping both tradition and culture alive.
Ramli and his colleagues use Arabic, as well as Malay, to promote the faith and its teachings. That may seem obvious: All good Muslims are supposed to be able to read the Qur'an in Arabic. But contrast it with Malaysia: In that country, where Islam is the state religion, most people now have difficulty reading the jawi, or Arabic, script because the written Malay language has been romanized. The Muslims of Thailand, however, invariably use the Arabic script when writing their language, be it in the mosque or outside.
For preserving and strengthening the use of Arabic, the Muslims of Thailand can thank their brethren in the Arab world. Since the mid-1970's, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula - especially Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar - have offered scholarships to Thai Muslims to pursue both religious and secular studies in the Middle East. Though there are only about half a dozen scholarships a year to any one country, their impact is enormous. Few Thai Muslims speak the national language well enough to enter a Thai university, so the chance to pursue advanced studies in an Arab country is a real boon. At the Narathiwat school, over 50 of the staff are graduates of universities in the Arab world. Fuad Tayyib, now aged 30, studied mathematics at Riyadh University; Nasir al-Din Hamid majored in Islamic studies in Kuwait; Hassan Hajj Ahmad is an alumnus of a high school in Kuwait and of the University of Qatar.
And there is even a chance to go to the most famous center of Islamic learning, al-Azhar University in Cairo. 'Umar Tayyib, the director of the Narathiwat school, says proudly, "Next year we should have three students at al-Azhar." And when they return? Naturally they will pass on their learning, just like the Narathiwat imam, Ahmad Abdurrahman. He went to Makkah to live at the age of 10 - "because my father was a shaykh in the mosque and wanted me to study Islam" - and then studied at al-Azhar in the 1960's and 1970's.
By now, enough students have returned from the Arab world to constitute a nucleus of Arabic-language teacher training in Thailand itself. Jitsom bint Salih, for example, teaches the children of her poor fishing village the Arabic that she learned not in the Middle East but in the Islamic Institute in Pattani - and the slogan on the wall of her tiny schoolroom proclaims in Arabic, "Teach the people what they do not know."
But we are leaping over the centuries. What happened between the days of bunga mas and the modern era? The answer is two-fold: First, Islam grew deep roots in the region; and second, the European powers arrived in Southeast Asia. Both factors were troublesome complications for successive Siamese monarchs.
Islam arrived in the wake of commerce. Muslim traders from the Middle East and India brought their religion with them as they sailed to Southeast Asia in search of spices and other riches. By the early 17th century Pattani had established itself as the center of Islamic learning in the Malay Peninsula. For the next 200 years and more Pattani produced scholars who not only translated Arabic texts for Malay readers but who also wrote their own religious works. Daud ibn Abdullah ibn Idris al-Fatani, for example, was a theologian whose expertise in fiqh, or jurisprudence, was recognized even in Makkah.
But the stronger Islam became in the region, the more its adherents identified not with the distant king of Siam but with their coreligionists in the Malay states to the south. The result was a series of uprisings, encouraged in part by the insensitivity of the Siamese bureaucrats to Muslim custom. By 1890 a Muslim writer described the officials who came to diminish the power of the traditional rulers and of the 'ulama, the religious leaders who advised them, as "the leeches and parasites of the state."
Such tensions, leading at one point to the exile of the ruler of Pattani, also reflected international conflicts. By the 16th century, Europe's colonial powers were competing for the land and resources of Southeast Asia. At first, the Siamese were pressed to grant trading concessions - to the Dutch, for example, giving them a monopoly over part of the country's external trade, and to the Portuguese to trade with certain Malay states. But soon Siam's independence was at stake. The French were approaching from their new domain in Laos and other parts of Indochina; the British were threatening to encroach both from India in the west and from Singapore and the Malay Peninsula in the souths.
By the beginning of this century the reformer King Chulalongkorn desperately needed some formula to stop his domain being nibbled away by the rival ambitions of the French, British, Russians, Germans and even Turks. The answer was the Anglo-Siamese Agreement of 1909: The King formally ceded tributary rights to four of Siam's southernmost Muslim provinces - Kedah, Terengganu, Kelantan and Perlis - to Britain in exchange for Britain's recognition of Siamese sovereignty over Pattani and the principalities surrounding it. It was a clever move for both parties: By sacrificing part of their traditional authority, the Siamese won the implicit protection of the British, who for their part could enjoy the plantation riches of northern Malaya while keeping Siam as a neutral buffer state between British India and French Indochina.
The only problem was that the agreement left many Muslims north of the new border to co-exist with a Buddhist majority with which they had little mutual sympathy. This juxtaposition led to the emergence, in the last 40 years, of various movements seeking Muslim independence from Thai rule.
Fortunately, governments can learn from their mistakes, and King Chulalongkorn's conciliatory instructions to his ministers three-quarters of a century ago have been recalled: "We regard [Islam] as a religion for those people in that part of the country." Muslim wishes have been heard and Muslims' circumstances have improved. Each Muslim province now has a central mosque built with government funds - to the tune of $1 million in the case of Ahmad Abdurrahman's mosque in Narathiwat. In Pattani, Governor Chamnong says, "Everyone is free to worship in his own way - but we want every Muslim to speak Thai. They are people of this country, and Thai is the official language." But that does not have to mean losing the culture of Islam, the governor adds: "We're trying to open a new faculty at the university in Islamic studies, so that the people don't have to go to Cairo."

In the meantime, life in the southern provinces goes on with the relaxed rhythm imposed by nature. Take away the small businessmen of Hatyai, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat and most of Thailand's Muslims are rice farmers, plantation workers or fishermen. Life is hard, but simple. From fishing villages like Panare scores, even hundreds, of kolae fishing boats go out with the tide each day. Their steep, pointed prows are a mass of intricately painted curls; sterns and sides often bear beautiful paintings of Alpine scenes that none of the fishermen will ever see in real life. In the fields, the farmers and their families toil over the rice plants.
To the visiting farang, the scenes are a delightful passport to an era urbanized man has left behind. For the Thai Muslims entertainment is still a communal enjoyment. The fishing families huddle around a shared television. In villages like Chana, the inhabitants gather in the early morning to raise dozens of caged doves aloft on six-meter (20-foot) metal poles. The doves burst into songs that are judged for pitch, melody and volume. An outsider can hardly tell even from which direction the dove song is coming - but the owners can, and a bird that wins a major competition can end up being worth $12,000.
Will it stay this way forever? Perhaps not. Development, although slow, will bring cars to replace the ubiquitous mopeds. The potential of the valuable tin deposits in the hills is bound to force change. Fishermen will leave the dangers of the sea for easier jobs in the small factories now sprouting on the outskirts of Hatyai and Yala. Families may decide that watching the new television set carries more immediate interest than teaching a dove to sing.
But one thing seems certain to survive, and even grow: the interest in Islam. At the central mosque in Pattani businessman Abdullah Abdulwahab says, "Islam is getting stronger. Every mosque has a place to teach Islamic studies, and 40 percent of the people send their children to these schools. Each year, 1,000 people from the Pattani area do the Hajj. I did it three years ago, and I think I'll do it again." His confidence is surely right. Pattani, like the rest of southern Thailand, is leaving the era of the moped. Taking part in the noon prayer when we visited Pattani was a man with lettering on the back of his overalls. It said, "Chief Mechanic, Toyota, Pattani."
Written by John Andrews
Photographed by Nik Wheeler


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