Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ghosts of Tak Bai still haunt Thais 10 years on

Ten years ago, on the morning of October 25, 2004, Thai security forces surrounded a large group of unarmed demonstrators, ordering them to cease their protest and go home.

The demonstrators were demanding the release of local village-defence volunteers accused of handing their weapons over to insurgents. The volunteers had said they were overpowered by the militants and decided not to put up a fight.

It's strange how the military expected these villagers to put their lives on the line, yet then had no qualms about taking the lives of the unarmed demonstrators, who were pinned down on all sides and backed up against the Tak Bai River.

In the afternoon, troops from various units commenced firing into the crowd, killing at least six at the scene before stacking the rest, one on top the other, on the back of military transport trucks.
By the time the demonstrators reached a military camp in Pattani about four hours later, 79 had suffocated to death.

The head of the Fourth Army Area was transferred out of the region, but that was all that happened in terms of responsibility for the deaths being assigned. Sometime later, the families of the dead received monetary "compensation" for their loss.

A decade later "the Tak Bai massacre" continues to haunt Thailand and radicalise a new generation of Patani Malay insurgents, who point to the incident as an example of the indifference of the Thai state and public to the plight of Muslims in the southernmost provinces.

Perhaps the most meaningful effort to heal the wound and bring reconciliation was made in 2006 by then-prime minister Surayud Chulanont, who apologised for the Tak Bai incident and other violence committed against local residents by the state.

But Thai bureaucrats and the rest of society and were largely indifferent to the gesture and no one took the time to build on it. A precious opportunity was lost.

Today, 10 years on, another military-appointed government is in place. In the absence of effective opposition in or outside Parliament, the spotlight is solely on coup leader Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to show the political courage to follow Surayud's lead.

Prayut might choose to ignore the anniversary of Tak Bai tomorrow, but he cannot ignore the reality that Thai security forces are paying the price with their lives as they go up against vengeful separatist militants who continue to show the world that they haven't forgotten the tragic incident.

Prayut knows that any move to reach out to separatist elements in the South would gain little support among the rest of the Thai public, given the widespread indifference to the Patani Malays' distinct cultural and historical identity.

The Tak Bai protest and the armed insurgency itself are viewed by most as a challenge to the official narrative of Thai statehood constructed by the establishment. That explains the widespread lack of sympathy for victims at Tak Bai and, indeed, for any other Malays mistreated by state officials. Is it any wonder then that, even amid talk of peace efforts through negotiations, a culture of impunity continues to prevail in the South?

No one said being prime minister would be easy, but Prayut must avoid the temptation to treat his term in office as a popularity contest. In due time, no one will remember the small efforts made for national "happiness", such as the free World Cup matches on television or the crackdown on petty criminals.

His other option is to do the right thing and go down in history as a man who showed political courage at a time when the situation called for it.

Prayut can talk about peace and reconciliation all he wants, but if he ignores justice and equality for the residents of the deep South, it won't mean a thing. The Nation, Bangkok

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