Southern Discomfort

PATTANI, SOUTH THAILAND — Armed soldiers, their rifles ready to shoot, stand behind bunkers of sand bags as we enter Pattani province in southern Thailand. There is a security checkpoint every 100 metres afterwards, and the soldiers stop and check every passing vehicle.

My mobile phone had stopped working soon after we crossed over into Pattani, losing the signal from the telecommunications-service provider. My companion, a Muslim student from Thailand’s well-known Prince Songkla University, explains that this is a security measure and I realise I had forgotten to inform the mobile-phone company in Bangkok of my travel here.

Following a series of mobile phone-triggered bomb explosions in the insurgency-wracked southern region, it has become mandatory for visitors to register their mobile-phone numbers with the service provider before travelling here. My companion also says that the security checkpoints are often the target of night attacks by suspected Islamic separatist militants.

This is my first visit to Thailand’s troubled southern border region whose past is linked to the current separatist violence, which has claimed over 4,000 lives in Pattani and the adjoining districts of Yala and Narathiwat since early 2004.

Indeed, my visit coincides with the 100th anniversary of the separatist campaign in Thailand’s Muslim-majority south that some scholars say began in the early 20th century.

“May 20, 2009 marks 100 years of conflict in south Thailand,” says Dr. Syukree Langputeh, Dean of Faculty of Liberal Arts at Pattani’s Yala Islamic University. He says the violence in south Thailand has its roots in the 1909 merger of the four provinces of Songkhla, Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani with Siam Negri, now known as Thailand. Pattani, he says, used to be part of a much bigger and predominantly Islamic kingdom that straddled parts of present-day Thailand and Malaysia. Thailand’s Malay-speaking and mainly Muslim southern border region is culturally distinct from predominantly Buddhist Thailand.

Syukree was actually referring to the 1909 Bangkok Treaty that was recognised by Britain, the colonial power in what was then known as Malaya. Thailand itself has never been colonised by a Western power — the only country in Southeast Asia to have escaped such a fate. But as Siam, Thailand had conquered other lands, among them Pattani, which it formally annexed in 1902. Pattani, though, had been under Siamese rule since the days of Rama I, and even then attempts to break away from Bangkok were not uncommon.

The blame game

On the surface, it would seem that being part of a non-Malay, non-Muslim nation has never really sat all that well with some Pattanese. During my four days of travelling around Pattani, I note similarities with the separatist conflict some years ago in Indonesia’s Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam. Just as in Aceh, where the Indonesian army took to having formidable numbers, the large-scale presence of Thai armed troops in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat has done little to enhance public security. One is advised not to go out of the hotel at night and stay away from crowded markets and government areas. Drive-by shootings and bomb explosions are an everyday occurrence.

The violence is invariably attributed to separatist militants, which are now divided into several groups. But independent observers say the situation is more complex. For instance, Heru Susetyo, an Indonesian doctoral student in Bangkok who is researching human rights in south Thailand, says local people believe state security forces are also guilty of fomenting resentment among the locals.

Susetyo is a member of the Bangkok-based Muslim Attorney Center (MAC). He cites cases of several young Muslims students from south Thailand who on their return from higher Islamic educational institutions in Indonesia or Malaysia were arrested under suspicion of being influenced by radical Islamic ideology and supporting the militants. The MAC is providing legal assistance to the young men who are still in detention.

One young man from Narathiwat says he can no longer stay in his home village after two police officers were killed there. Now a teacher in Pattani’s Yala Islamic University, he says several young people from his village were being arrested daily after the incident. “I’m so lucky to have escaped,” he says, recalling that he happened to be there on a visit at the time. These days, he says, he can visit his parents at their home for only a few hours and cannot even stay overnight.

Yunian Sasmita is another Narathiwat resident who can no longer go back home, fearing he would be mistaken as an Islamist sympathiser. Now connected with a research centre at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Yunian has gone through some tragic experiences, including the murder of his father during morning prayers at a mosque in Narathiwat. And while he says he is no longer traumatised by his father’s death, “surely I cannot forget the murder”.

In the meantime, Romson She, a Prince Songkla University student, points out that security forces were believed to be the perpetrators in the abduction of several Islamic religious teachers from a big mosque in Yala in 2004. The teachers were suspected of having links with the extremists and many of those abducted have not been seen since.

Twin turning points

But two major incidents in particular are considered as turning points in the situation in south Thailand. In April 2004, Thai troops launched an assault on Pattani’s historic Krue Sai mosque to flush out 32 separatists inside. The separatists had barricaded themselves inside the mosque following coordinated attacks by scores of militants against security posts in the province. All 32 were eventually gunned down.

Then in October 2005 more than a thousand protesters in Tak Bai district in neighbouring Narathiwat were arrested by security forces and transported under conditions so inhumane that dozens of the detainees died.

Human-rights bodies and independent observers believe the two incidents led to an escalation of the separatist violence. Unfortunately, the ill feelings stoked by these cases among the people here are unlikely to lessen anytime soon. Just this May, a Thai court absolved the security forces of any wrongdoing in the Tak Bai tragedy. Thai newspapers quoted relatives of those who died in the Tak Bai fiasco as expressing anger and hopelessness at the court’s decision.

The government of then Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, set up after the September 2006 military takeover in Bangkok, offered a public apology for the tragedy. But media commentators say authorities in Bangkok do not seem to understand the separatist conflict.

On the fifth anniversary of the bloodbath at the mosque, the English-language The Nation newspaper in Bangkok was moved to observe: “Five years after the Krue Se massacre, it may be time to consider a non-military solution to the insurgency in the region. What is needed is a profound shift in mindset and attitude, as the traditional military approach to the conflict in the deep south has not only failed us but has had a paralysing effect.”

The newspaper added that Thai authorities seem unable to accept legitimate historical grievances of the local people and wrongly attribute the violence to religious extremism. Dr. Syukre himself says that the human-rights situation in south Thailand must be seen in a broader dimension, which requires an end to discrimination against locals in government employment and provision of quality education. Researcher Susetyo also comments, “A dialogue is needed to find a model solution to prevent (more) human-rights violations.”

Inadequate state response

To be fair, the current government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has since reactivated the Southern Border Province Administrative Centre (SBPAC) that is supposed to look after the region’s socioeconomic development. But the Abhisit administration has also been busy putting out political fires in Bangkok itself, and has been unable to give this part of the country the attention it deserves.

There are those who say that in dealing with its southern region, Thailand would do well to take a hard look at the provisions of the ASEAN Charter, of which it is one of the signatories. Then again, there has been a lot of scepticism over the regional association’s own ability to enforce the provisions of the Charter, especially with regard to the provision on human rights promotion and protection. Collectively and individually, ASEAN member-countries are just happy to have a Charter that gives the bloc a legal personality, and are slow in observing provisions especially pertaining to political issues.

It could be argued, however, that there is no stopping ASEAN members from consulting one another on issues or situations that they have in common. At the very least, perhaps Thailand can pick some lessons from, say, Indonesia’s experiences (including its mistakes) in Aceh and Papua, where peace has finally come after years of violence. Thai foreign ministry official Usana Berananda also indicates that the new ASEAN human-rights body underlines the organisation’s concern for rights protection. That includes the case of south Thailand, she says.

So far, though, Thailand seems determined to go at its southern problem on its own – with not much luck. As it is, the Thai media have also criticised the state policy of arming local people against the militants, saying this has just made the situation worse. Three months after my visit here, police would implicate a 34-year-old non-Muslim man in Narathiwat in the June 2009 massacre of 11 worshippers in the Al-Furqan mosque in that province’s Joh I Rong district. The suspect would be described as one of the attackers whom the police would also accuse of the November 2008 attack on Muslim villagers at a teashop in Narathiwat.

Earlier, authorities had blamed Islamic separatists for the Al-Furqan massacre, angering locals. Thai newspapers, however, reported that the assailants belonged to a state-armed local self-defence unit comprising exclusively Buddhists. News media also pointed a finger at government-trained village militias in the April 2007 attack on a Muslim funeral procession that the army had attributed to Islamic separatists.

My short stay in Pattani is marked by the brutal killing of a schoolteacher; months later, I would hear that the bloodshed hasn’t stopped. The violence has driven many non-Muslim residents out of the strife-torn region, while those staying behind find themselves caught between the militants and state neglect. Hundreds of households who have lost breadwinners to the violence are still awaiting adequate government support.

Two Thai Muslim activists who are from this part of the country see a long struggle ahead for their community. “A hundred (more) years will not be enough,” they say, stressing the importance of restoring the feeling of security for locals. They say their people should live free from physical and psychological terror.

“These two things,” say the activists, “are the most important for the people.”

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