Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Is there a new threshold in Thailand’s southern insurgency?

In the aftermath of the Sungai Kolok bombing just over a week ago, authorities immediately tried to link the attacks to drug-traffickers.

This isn’t the first time that such a claim has been made. In fact, it’s the same line used against hundreds of young men who took part in a pre-dawn blitz against ten police outposts and one station, before 32 of them retreated to the Kru Se mosque, where they stood their ground until the security forces mowed them down.

The then government of Thaksin Shinawatra dismissed them as drug-crazed youths bent on creating disturbances. Locals see them as young men who charged into certain death so they could be heard. Most, if not all, were armed with little more than machetes. They believed they were invincible.

By demonising the Malay Muslim militants in the deep South and putting them in the same boat as ordinary criminals, the government is painting this conflict as one between good and evil or, more to the point, saintly authorities versus drug-traffickers.

Such a strategy contradicts the views of senior Army officers working directly with former insurgent recruits. Many are considered to be clean, pious and good students but dedicated to the idea of liberating their historical homeland that now constitutes the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.

Such tactics also undermine some of the work being carried out by top officers of the Fourth Army who have been working with scores of former insurgents through counselling in military-run installations.

“In many respects, their parents and teachers have done a good job in raising them,” said one Army officer.

The conflict in Thailand’s Malay-speaking deep South is not as simple as the current or previous administrations want the public to believe. But fighting a scurge such as drug-trafficking is easier than combating militants with a historical grievance. It permits the culture of impunity to continue, with little criticism from the public.

Local residents and exiled Patani Malay leaders who have watched the evolution of the conflict over the past seven years say the Thai authorities are barking up the wrong tree with their analyses and claims of drugs and the insurgency being one.

While some militants on the ground may have lent their services to local crime syndicates with an axe to grind with the authorities, that doesn’t in any way reflect the overall sentiment or operations of the younger generation of insurgents, they say.

The question the authorities need to be asking is whether the insurgents’ narrative of the liberation of Patani, the Malay historical homeland, has evolved or expanded to include a campaign against social ills, such as prostitution, which is something Sungai Kolok is known for.

By linking drugs and the insurgency as one, said one cadre from the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C), the government strategy is to deny the insurgents this historical grievance, thus any form of legitimacy.

It’s not just the spike in violence and the intensity, it’s also the nature of the attacks, they say. Some point to a shooting inside a mosque in Yala’s Budi district when two gunmen weaved through lines of people taking part in the weekly Friday prayer session to get close enough to their targets to commence shooting at close range.

The incident struck a nerve among local Muslims, who felt the insurgents violated the sanctity of the mosque. It is one thing if non-Muslims pepetrate such acts – such as the April 28, 2004 standoff at the Krue Se Mosque in Pattani, or the massacre at the Ai Ba Yae Mosque in Narathiwat – but it is entirely another matter if such incidents are carried out by fellow Muslims.

There was a similar incident in May 2006 in Pattani’s Mayo district when a gunman fired two bullets into the head of a border patrol police officer. But the gunman was “considerate” enough to wait until the victim had concluded his prayers. One reading of the incident was that it was nothing personal; the victim just happened to be a member of the opposing force.

If the Mayo incident was “nothing personal”, then the attack in Budi was carried out with extreme prejudice. The two victims were subordinates of the late Police Colonel Sompien Eksomya, billed by some as a national hero but thought of differently by local Malay Muslim residents, who slaughtered over 100 goats in celebration after he was killed by a roadside bomb in March 2010.

As for Sungai Kolok, it is not the first time that this border town known for its nightlife and prostitution has been attacked. In line with past claims, authorities are maintaing that it was the work of a drugs and crime syndicate colluding with insurgents.

But while the authorities paint a cut-and-dried picture of the violence, some exiled separatist leaders say the Sungai Kolok suggests that the militants may be crossing a new threshold, hitting soft targets that represent social ills. This could become the norm from now on, regardless if foreign nationals become part of the collateral damage.

According to the BRN-C source, the juwae, as the insurgents are known, admitted that the timing of the attack could have been better. If they had waited until later in the evening, one victim may have not been a three-year-old child, he said.

In essence, the Sungai Kolok incident was meant to kill two birds with one stone – attacking social ills brought in by outsiders and discrediting the government security agencies.

While the attack may be the work of one cell, it doesn’t mean that other cells won’t pick up on the idea of attacking nightlife spots. Attacks against karaoke bars that supposedly serve as a front for prostitution have been carried out in recent years, but the aim is essentially about discrediting the security apparatus, not to “cleanse” the Muslim-majority region, exiled separatist leaders say.

Going on a moral crusade requires some degree of rigidity in terms of ideology. And while a significant number of juwae are known to be quite pious, nevertheless the Patani narrative that is embraced by generation after generation of separatists is flexible enough to permit young men who are “not so straight and not so religious” into the movement.

Moreover, given the organic nature of the cells throughout the entire Malay-speaking South, it is very unlikely that such an idea would gain much ground.

Members of the long-standing separatist groups holding direct talks with the juwae on the ground say the fact that Malaysian citizens are caught up in the violence is a cause of concern, as this could widen the scope of the conflict in a manner that precludes peace talks.

Attention and interest from outsiders is fine but it should be centred on moral support for the Malays’ cultural and historical narrative that the movement accuses the Thai state of denying them, they say. The Nation, Bangkok

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