Counter-Terrorism: The Thai Solution


June 13, 2007: When General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, the first-ever Moslem head of the Thai Army, seized power through a bloodless coup on 19 September 2006, expert opinions and commentaries flooded the news media around the world over hope of halting the Islamic terrorism in the Moslem provinces of southern Thailand. More than 2,200 people died since the Islamic terrorism flared up in 2004 in Thailand's Moslem-majority southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Poverty and financial problems were always cited as prime factors behind the unrest but indicators show, economic performance of the deep south improved drastically in recent decades. Between 1983 and 2003, the average per capita income of Pattani grew from $290 to around $1780, while that of Yala and Narathiwat increased from $460 and $320 to around $1630 and $1190, respectively.

The unrest got going in 2001, mainly in Pattani province, with banditry and clan feuds. Until 2004, the government denied that religion played a part. In January 2004, the situation worsened throughout the south, forcing the government to impose martial law. The Army took an offensive approach with heavy-handed raids on Moslem villages. After a series of bomb attacks in Yala province in 2005, the prime minister issued a decree that gave him sweeping powers to direct all military operations in the area. After that, the Army operations increased with continuous raids and search operations in the three provinces. As a consequence, a group of 131 villagers fled to neighboring Malaysia and asked for political asylum.

Despite increased efforts since the coup; the Islamic terrorism has not subsided. The government offered concessions and privileges to the Moslems, but the immediate response was a more attacks. The government then offered autonomy for the region, which was spurned by the terrorists as well. The prime minister even made an offer to allow the application of Islamic Sharia laws in an otherwise secular democratic country; which was also rejected. In sum, the terrorists want independence from Thailand, and reject everything else.

The Thai problems are separate and quite different from 'global jihad' that is underway in the rest of the Moslem world. A unique feature of the Thai situation, compared to other terrorist campaigns around the world, is that no one tales credit after any attacks. This is very much unlike terrorist groups around the world who almost always want credit for their operations. The Thai terrorists are a compilation of violent groups without an identifiable central leadership. The inability to identify, who is coordinating these attacks, also works as a crucial obstacle for the Thai security forces.

The government latest idea is to increase community involvement and economic development for the south. The government also rejected a U.S. offer of military training, fearing it would agitate the Moslem radicals still more. Finally, last month, the army began withdrawing soldiers from the South, replacing them with territorial defense volunteers. But the terrorist violence have not stopped a bit. Some 103 people were killed last month, making it one of the bloodiest months so far. In the first week on June 2007, terrorists continued attacking security forces and civilians, and escalated to attacks on the railroad, shutting down rail services in parts of the south. Most recently, school authorities of Yala and Narathiwat suspended classes for a week following brutal killings of three teachers.

Moslems living in the south claim that a decade of oppression and marginalization has caused the violence. If this is true, then the offers given by government are more than what they desire. But the violence still continues, and that's because the real goal is an independent state, as was the case a century ago, before the Thais took control of the area. Considering the experiences of Islamic insurgency in Mindanao, Kashmir, Chechnya, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina; unless the independence issue is confronted, and dealt with one way or another, there will be no peace. In recent decades, no 'Islamic movements' in non-Moslem countries have accomplished peaceful solution.

The Thai government must learn from experiences in Kashmir, Kosovo and Mindanao, where the separatists were eventually persuaded that independence was not going to happen, and that autonomy was the best they could expect. To that end, the Thais have reminded the southerners how previous rebellions were handled. The Thai custom is to be quite brutal with such uprisings. While this has worked in the past, it is not considered politically correct today. Many Thais, however, do not seem bothered by any possible embarrassment. So the situation in the south may end with a massacre, rather than mediation.




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