One year after the massacre of Muslims by Thai security forces during Ramadan last year, the government of Thaksin Shinawatra is hoping that it will be a case of so much water having flowed under the bridge. The truth is that so many Muslim lives were lost that the southern tip of Thailand has become the most dangerous place in the region after Aceh and Mindanao for Muslims.
Incidents of armed violence involving ‘unidentified groups' have continued ever since Thaksin launched his attack on the Muslim community and their institutions after his open support for Washington's war on terror. While analysts and ‘experts' have told the all-too-familiar story of how Muslim militants returned from jihad in Afghanistan during the eighties and spread Wahhabism among the formerly ‘moderate' Sunni Muslims, the Thai government's policy of state terror has never been examined. The murders and beheadings of Buddhist monks, never heard of during hundreds of years of Muslims and Buddhists living together in this Muslim-majority region, are now blamed on Muslim terrorists who were "trained in the Middle East".
The Thai government stepped up the decades-old repression two years ago; thousands of Muslim and human-rights activists have been listed as "disappeared". One of the victims is Somchai Neelaphaijit, a prominent lawyer. Although even Thai government officials have repeatedly warned Thaksin and his government against "playing with fire", the violence against civilians has got worse, culminating in such killings as seen in Kerisik, when troops stormed a historic mosque and killed scores of Muslim youths, and Tak Bai, when hundreds of peaceful demonstrators were stuffed in crowded lorries last Ramadan, and died of suffocation and overcrowding.
The situation appears not to have improved at all. On September 21, two members of the Thai marines, who were held hostage after opening fire at a teashop, were killed. Throughout the hostage crisis none of the villagers had cooperated with the authorities regarding the marines' whereabouts, with village women forming a human barricade around the village to prevent troops from entering. This incident itself is proof that Thaksin's campaign to "win the hearts and minds" of Muslims in the south is a miserable failure. Rather than studying the situation closely and answering the question "where have we gone wrong?", Thaksin continues to pour troops into the region, where there are now more than 20,000 of them.
On September 23 two Muslim religious teachers were arrested in Yala and paraded before the media for allegedly training militants to carry out attacks on government targets. On the same day, four people were killed at different places, by unknown assailants whom the authorities immediately identified as "Muslim militants". Elsewhere in the region more than a thousand people have been killed since January last year, and many have begun to compare the once-peaceful Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala (the three Muslim-majority provinces ofThailand) with post-invasion Iraq. Bangkok has blamed everybody from Muslim residents to the neighbouring Malaysian government for fuelling the supposed Muslim insurgency. This initially prompted Kuala Lumpur to take action against southern Thai Muslims who live in the Malaysian state of Kelantan, which borders Thailand, because it was fearful that inaction would lead to its being branded a "terrorist haven". But criticism in Malaysia from both sides of the political divide over the way Thaksin's regime is treating the Muslims has prompted the government to consider sheltering Muslims fleeing from Thailand.
Although Malaysia does not have any laws to accommodate refugees, at least some inhuman policies against those who seek political refuge have changed under prime minister Abdullah Badawi, who took over from Mahathir Mohamad two years ago. These changes include giving thousands of Burmese Muslims stranded in the country work permits, and not sending back Muslims to southern Thailand by force. Last August, 131 Muslims from Pattani were taken in when they crossed the border into Malaysia, prompting Bangkok to protest that "Muslim militants" were among them and that the UNHCR should not protect them. Instead, calls were made by the ruling UMNO to accept with open hands the arrival of thousands of Muslims from southern Thailand.
While the concern and sympathy shown by their neighbours are praiseworthy, Muslims in Pattani and surrounding provinces rightly expect more help. While some say that Malaysia's sympathetic gestures to Pattani Muslims could be revenge for Bangkok's decades-old protection of armed communist rebels from what was then Malaya, who fled to the border, such a shift in policy should be welcome news for Thai's oppressed Muslims, now that they have nowhere else to turn for help, least of all to Muslim governments or the OIC.
In the mean time, Thaksin's psychological warfare continues simultaneously with his campaign to neutralise Muslim grievances. The Thai education ministry recently announced the introduction of Islamic religious studies in its national curriculum, giving job-opportunities for Muslims educated in the Middle East. Earlier, Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, a Muslim, was chosen to become commander of the royal Thai forces. No matter what the Thaksin regime does, however, it has not yet addressed the real social, economic and political grievances of Muslims, which have now led to military unrest that could result in years of bloodshed.