Flushed with success at containing and nearly crushing the communist insurgency in Thailand, the Thai military has turned its heavy guns against the Muslims of South Thailand. Within a week of launching a massive campaign last month, the Thai army claimed major successes in the South.
Code-named operation ‘Pitak Tai’ (safeguarding the South), the Thai Fourth army announced that it had ‘captured’ three leaders of Muslim groups on January 22 in Narathwati, according to a report in the Bangkok Post (January 23). The paper went on to say that they were flown to the capital.
The three - Haji Da-oh Thanam, aka Haji Da-oh Maseng, and his two followers, Abdulrohman bin Abdul Kadir and Haji Buedo Basubetong or Asem Abdulrohman - are members of the New Pattani United Liberation Organisation (New-PULO). According to their lawyers who were permitted to see them on January 26, the three were arrested near a river in Narathiwat’s Sungai Kolok district, which is opposite Kelantan, Malaysia. They were on their way to Kuala Lumpur from Kedah to raise funds for a mosque project in Kelantan.
Thai police chief Pracha Promnog claimed that the three had ‘confessed’ to bombings, arson and treason after six hours of questioning. Their lawyers said that the three had been brutally tortured. Haji Da-oh had bruise marks on his wrists, indicating that he had been handcuffed for several days. Torture is widespread in Thailand. The lawyers also revealed that their clients had been forced to sign a number of blank papers under threat of further torture. These were later used by the Thai police as ‘confessions’ of the arrested men.
The Thai fourth army chief, lieutenant general Preecha Suwannasri’s claim of capturing the three Muslim leaders was contradicted by reports from Malaysia. According to information received by us, the three were arrested in a rest area after they broke their fast and were about to offer maghrib prayers. Thai agents working in conjunction with the Malaysian police pounced on them. They were blindfolded and then handed over to Thai security forces. Despite such close cooperation between the two governments, Bangkok continues to accuse Malaysia of harbouring and training Muslim ‘separatists.’
Thai prime minister Chuan Leekpai had repeated this allegation only days before the army launched its military operations in Southern Thailand. Chuan alleged that Muslim separatists were being trained across the border in Malaysia and sent to cause trouble in Thailand’s five Muslim-dominated southern provinces, especially in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.
Three groups have been named by the Thai Internal Security Operations Command: the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), the New-PULO, and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). They have been accused of a string of bombings and arson attacks in recent weeks, a charge vehemently denied by the groups struggling for autonomy in the overwhelmingly Muslim South.
The more likely culprits, especially of the January 4 and 5 bombings in Betong district of Yala province, are the border security forces or their hired agents in order to provide a pretext for the military’s deployment. Hitherto, the southern provinces were administered by the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC). This body which also has a number of Muslims on it, will remain in existence but its responsibilities have been confined to economic, social, and administrative affairs.
The Fourth Army has taken control of combat and intelligence operations in the South following a meeting at the Supreme Command headquarters between the interior ministry and the military in early January. The meeting was attended by interior minister Sanan
Kachornprasart (himself an army major general), his deputy Chamni Sakdiset, SBPAC director Palakorn Suwanarath, supreme commander general Mongkol Ampornpisith, armed forces chief-of-staff general Chainarong Noonpakdi, army commander-in-chief general Chettha Thanajaro, army chief-of-staff general Chan Boonprasert and police chief general Pracha Promnok.
The Fourth Army commander has been given full authority to make decisions without having to seek approval from the army chief. He and the SBPAC director will coordinate closely. Southern Thailand is now virtually under martial law.
Prime ministerial order, No 59, regarding the role of the military and interior ministry in the South has been amended. The original order aimed to suppress communist activities. ‘The situation has changed,’ major general Sanan said. Flushed with success against the communists, the military has now turned its guns against the Muslims who are denied their basic rights under the pretext of creating a united Thailand under Buddhist control.
The situation in Southern Thailand is not dissimilar to that in Southern Philippines. In the latter’s case, the Muslim Moro majority has already been turned into a minority in their own ancestral homeland by Christian settlers. A similar campaign is underway in Southern Thailand by the Buddhists. The major difference is that this region borders Malaysia and there is considerable cross-border movement. A large number of people also hold dual nationalities, who according to the Thai prime minister Chuan Leekpai are prime suspects. During his visit to Malaysia for the informal Asean summit (December 14-16) Chuan is reported to have discussed the issue with his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohammed.
The Thai regime’s true intentions were revealed by a statement made by the supreme commander, general Mongkol. He said the recent ‘terrorist attacks’ were the work of drug addicts hired by terrorist groups that wanted to show achievements. In a statement issued to the press, he assured that the situation in all southern provinces will be brought back to ‘normal.’
General Chettha, the army chief, gave similar assurances. He said military operations would be carried out with due consideration for the feelings of local people and those abroad. Their operations would not cause a bad image and would not affect the ‘Amazing Thailand’ campaign.
Meanwhile, parliament president Wan Muhamad Nor Matha, who is the member of parliament for Yala, said the separatist groups, which in the past operated in the jungle and remote areas, had resorted to sabotage activities in towns. He alleged that they hired drug addicts or undesirable elements in society to trigger unrest. He suggested that weak intelligence work was partly responsible for the recent surge in terrorist activities. No one could pinpoint those responsible for the spate of violence. This appeared to confuse the public, he said.
Muslimedia: February 16-28, 1998