As the conflict in Aceh recedes into the past, another part of Muslim southeast Asia has emerged as a conflict zone, as if to replace the ‘vacuum' created by the successful peace accord between GAM and Jakarta. The Muslim-majority provinces in southern Thailand, which border with Malaysia, have been the scene of unprecedented casualties in recent months, pushing the death toll to 2,000, all killed in circumstances that have yet to be explained in a plausible manner. The situation is so bad that daily bombings are now almost a way of life in the south, with the media and politicians in Bangkok blaming the trouble on Muslims fighting for independence from the Buddhist kingdom.
Worried about a spillover, Malaysia recently offered itself as intermediary for any talks between Bangkok and Muslim groups in the south. On February 16 Malaysian prime minister Abdullah Badawi met general Surayud Chulanont, his Thai counterpart, in Bangkok to discuss the offer. The military government headed by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin (pic, above) has welcomed the offer, reflecting an attitude very unlike that of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister whom he overthrew peacefully last September.
The latest attacks came on February 18, with 49 incidents of bombings, shootings and arson, costing nine lives and dozens wounded. The bombings are the worst this year since the New Year's eve attack in Bangkok, making the capital vulnerable for the first time since violence flared up in the south three years ago. While analysts agree that Muslim groups, most notably the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), which once launched an armed struggle to break away from the kingdom, are unlikely to have launched such attacks, Thai government leaders were quick to point their fingers at Muslim ‘militants'. The fact is that these militants' existence has yet to be agreed upon by ‘terrorist experts' and Thai commentators; they seem to be figments of heated imagination, not unlike the so-called Jemaah Islamiyyah not long ago.
The latest incidents show that there is more to the conflict in the south than meets the eye. The oft-repeated ‘evidence' of the Muslims' involvement in the latest bombings occurred during a major festival celebrated by ethnic Chinese and Buddhist residents in the region, and so they were meant to "frighten them" to flee the territories. Similarly when, during Malaysia's national day celebrations in August last year, dozens of banks in the southern province of Yala were attacked, some officials attributed this to Pattani Muslims' desire to mark their identification with the Malays.
Such explanations do little to defuse the state of confusion that marks the violence in the south. Thaksin was the chief proponent of such theories, and the end result was police and military high-handedness against Muslim populations. But since his overthrow by General Sonthi, a Muslim who rose to become the army chief at a time its role was most needed by Thaksin to quell the conflict in the south, some semblance of diplomacy has been achieved. Having a Muslim in such an important post is not so strange in eastern politics that no one can benefit from it.
Many, however, agree that since coming to power the Council for National Security (NSC), headed by Sonthi and general Surayud, his colleague cum prime minister, has been far more active in seeking a peaceful solution. For one thing, Sonthi has refrained from blaming the casualties on ‘Muslim terrorists', as has been done by the Thai media, which often describe the south as a "hotbed" of "Islamic terrorism".
With the sharp increase in daily bombings, the new military government has been left with little option but to find the root of the problem. For all their heavy-handed tactics under Thaksin, one thing distinguishing the current leadership under Sonthi is his moderation in dealing with the problem, and his attempt to reach out to whoever is fighting for secession from Thailand.
Some quarters in the Thai media, as well as figures in the present military leadership, appear to be losing patience with Sonthi's apparently softer approach when dealing with the southern problem. Unhappy with this, they try to establish a link to Sonthi's Muslim background. Although Sonthi is said to be a ‘nominal' Muslim, this has not prevented the media from claiming that Sonthi may not be the right person to deal with Muslim ‘terrorists'. Not long ago the media reported that Sonthi has two wives, to show that he has broken Thai law, which bans polygamy. The only thing preventing these elements from launching an all-out attack on Sonthi is his closeness with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the constitutional monarch who still commands respect in Thai society.
Even before assuming power, Sonthi had conceded that the problem in the south can only be solved by negotiation and compromise. Now he has also welcomed the offer of mediation by Malaysia, which offers new hope for a solution to the decades-old conflict. In contrast, Thaksin's rule was marked by arrest and abduction of Muslim leaders, raids on madrasahs and fingerprinting of Muslim students. These happened at a time when Bangkok eagerly joined the US's "war on terror" and made the unpopular decision to send a token number of troops to Iraq. The Muslim-majority southern province's once open resentment against Bangkok had long gone after a general amnesty in the 1980s, as part of a successful ceasefire initiative. Resentment flared up again when, in June 2003, Thai authorities arrested prominent Muslims and accused them of planning attacks on several foreign embassies. In 2004, his security forces unleashed a wave of terror in the south, culminating in incidents such as the massacre committed at the historic Kerisik mosque in April and the deaths of hundreds of Muslims, who were stuffed into police trucks in October, during Ramadan. Since then Muslim resentment has also been caused by other issues, such as the prolonged discrimination and neglect by successive governments in Bangkok.
The southern tip of Thailand, which consists of Satun, Songkhla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, is generally referred to as Pattani, a Malay-Muslim sultanate that Siam annexed and made part of its kingdom in the 1700s. An armed struggle in the 1960s by the Pattani United Liberation Army (PULA) took a more political approach after members laid down arms in exchange for a ceasefire-cum-amnesty programme offered by Bangkok. (See Crescent, February 2004).
During his rule, Thaksin was responsible for many things that irked his country's Muslims. Almost all of these items have been undone or discontinued by the current military government as part of its search for a resolution in the south. But how successful the ‘moderate' voices can be with the anti-Muslim legacy of the former government remains to be seen.
For now, however, the military government led by General Sonthi deserves the benefit of some doubt. His latest response to peace initiatives, with Malaysia acting as an intermediary in negotiations and the like, is something that would have been impossible five months ago, and therefore by all means to be encouraged.