What could be more welcome to American soldiers stationed thousands of miles away from home than being posted in a country notorious for its flesh trade and sleazy nightlife? Because they feel claustrophobic in tiny Singapore (where the US army has been maintaining its military spying devices), Pentagon officials have been looking for land in southeast Asia for alternatives to be used for military "forwarding positioning", after similar attractive sites in India were found to be unavailable for leasing.
With the Philippines, its strongest ally in the region, busy crushing the Moro Muslims in the south, and Indonesia with "ethnic cleansing" in Aceh, Washington is looking for countries that are willing to offer it a military base in southeast Asia.
Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s prime minister who recently met George Bush has reportedly endorsed plans to lease vacant land near the Sattahip naval base and Utapao air-base in Chonburi and Rayong provinces to the US army. The plans are being put on a ‘commercial basis’ in order to avoid accusations of violating the so-called zone of peace and neutrality called for by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that groups together the region’s countries.
Analysts say that the Thais’ sudden goodwill gesture is intended to soothe the Bush administration, which was disappointed with Bangkok’s silence during the Iraq campaign. But Bangkok’s support for the US’s military plans is no secret: apart from annual joint military exercises, the Utapao air base was used extensively by US forces during the Vietnam war, and during the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq (including 1991). The Thai government has taken pains to deny the claims, which is understandable, especially as polls show that most Thais dislike the US. It does not want to be a target of ‘terrorist’ organisations and thus lay itself open to accusations by western governments of ‘terrorist activities’, which is a sure way to kill its main money-earner: the tourism ‘industry’.
The US had done some shopping, but with little success. Early June, Indian deputy prime minister L K Advani held talks with US defence secretary Donald Rumsfield in Washington. Soon afterwards Indian defence officials rejected the idea of having US bases on Indian territory; George Fernandes, India’s defence minister, said that New Delhi would "never" let its military bases be used by any other country.
The Indian position is understandable. Firstly, India cannot afford to upset China; secondly it is not able either politically or financially to deal with the level of anti-US hatred that could set off attacks on American interests in the region (‘terrorism’) and thus worsen the already tense relations with Pakistan. In other circumstances India could have been the best base for US plans for the Middle East: the subcontinent is located in the centre of Asia and across the sea-lanes connecting the Middle East and East Asia, making it an attractive alternative.
The US had also tried to make a deal with Malaysia, but at the moment the Malaysian regime is not prepared to take risks, especially because elections are due next year. But Thailand also shows Washington what it likes best to see: a clampdown on Muslim groups, in the usual form of arrests of Muslims linked to shady ‘Islamic militant organisations’, an action immediately hailed by Washington as "a positive step forward in the global war on terror."
Like its neighbours, Bangkok had until recently denied the existence of ‘terrorist’ activities on its territory, but has now realised that there is a lot of potential gain to be had by exploiting the ‘war on terror’. This applies especially to the decades-old Muslim resentment in the Muslim-majority southern provinces bordering Malaysia, even if it now realises that the strategy will probably backfire. Not long ago Thaksin dismissed media reports of ‘Islamic militancy’ in its territory as "work of crazy people". Then on June 7, in preparation for his meeting with Bush on June 10, he announced the arrest of Arifin bin Ali, a Singaporean Muslim, and the most ambitious plot to attack Western targets in Asia since Bali last October.
On the day of his meeting with Bush, the Thai authorities arrested a Thai religious teacher who runs a madrasah, his son and medical doctor Waehamadi Wae-dao, who is a community leader and social worker well-respected among the Muslim-majority population in the southern province of Narathiwat that borders with Malaysia. Some hours later the authorities announced that the father and son had "confessed" to being part of Jemaah Islamiah, the "al-Qaida-linked" group whose existence has yet to be proven by authorities in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, despite countless arrests of alleged ‘members’.
It is public knowledge, however, that Waehamadi is feared because of his immense popularity and because of his criticism of the security forces in the south. Somchai Nillapaijit, their defence lawyer, has said that they have not confessed to anything, and are waiting for their day in court. He reports that his clients have only admitted having met Arifin when dining at a restaurant where Arifin was working, some time during the US attack on Iraq. He said it was possible that they had joked about a bomb being planted at the US embassy in Bangkok: something no would-be bombers would talk about in the open at a dining-place.
The accusations against these men include the typical claim of plotting the bombings of foreign embassies in the country, a claim echoed by Singapore and the Philippines government in the hope of getting the support of the governments of these foreign embassies. The embassies named are also the standard axis of ‘liberators’ in the recent battle for Iraq: the US, Britain, Israel, Australia and Singapore.
Yet very few, even within official circles in Thailand, believe the allegations against the Muslims. Areepen Utarasin, a Thai member of parliament and advisor to the interior minister, and several senators have expressed doubts about the accusations in remarks published by the Bangkok Poston June 13. "The people in Narathiwat who know the suspects personally were all stunned by the police allegation," said Areepen. On June 18 senator Kraisak Choonhavan, head of the Thai foreign affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, warned that the charges seemed to be baseless and would only provoke unwanted reactions among the Muslims in the south, who are already unhappy with police high-handedness in the province.
"I feel the case is very unsubstantiated... and there are those who suspect that those arrested are scapegoats," he was quoted by AFP as having said. "And we’re quite worried about that because you’re creating a lot of uncertainty and insecurity among the Muslim community... and finally you will get a reaction," he said, adding that it was no coincidence the arrests were announced hours before Thaksin’s meeting with Bush.
Chookiat Panaspornpravit, head of the Institute of Security and International Studies, also expressed similar views: "I cannot avoid thinking or assuming that there was some manipulation or implicit influence by the US administration to force or to influence or put pressure on the Thai government to do something... the Thai government is now playing with domestic fire."
Signs of that may emerge in weeks to come, especially if Bangkok follows Malaysia and Singapore by denying those arrested a trial in open court. The six million Muslims in Thailand are not going to keep quiet either: Abdulloh Hayee Yama, president of the country’s Muslim Intellectual Club, told The Nation newspaper on June 18 that about 350 private Islamic schools in the southern provinces would gather and rally for justice for the three suspects.
Yet in Bangkok’s eagerness to oblige the Americans, there may be a slight silver lining for Muslims. At the moment Bangkok is taking their restlessness seriously. Police officials have been quick to deny any meddling from Washington in the recent arrests and promised to provide the facts of their investigation, meeting with Muslim leaders in the south. Plans are afoot to recruit more local people speaking the southern dialect into the police force. Calls are also being heard for local Muslim people to be empowered to elect their governors, as well as for these provinces to be declared special administrative areas.
The question is, with Uncle Sam coming to town, whether there will be a chain reaction from neighbouring regimes with Muslim populations who have yet to show their worth in the ‘war on terror’. This would not be unexpected, especially when two weeks before the Thai arrests, neighbouring Kampuchea (Cambodia) arrested three men, two of them Thai Muslims, also accused of being members of the so-called JI. The Kampuchean regime had only to announce that amadrasah was linked to a terrorist group, followed by its closure on May 29. It also deported scores of foreign religious teachers and forced hundreds of students to pack their bags and depart.