How to win hearts and minds in Thailand’s Muslim south?
More than five years after a Muslim insurgency erupted in southern Thailand, the conflict remains shrouded in mystery, with no credible claims of responsibility for the bloodshed in a once independent Malay Muslim land with a history of rebellion to Buddhist Thai rule.
On June 8, gunmen burst into a mosque and killed 10 people as they prayed. Thailand blamed separatist insurgents for the bloodiest attack this year in the mainly Muslim region bordering Malaysia where nearly 3,500 people have died in violence since 2004. But the head of the world’s biggest Islamic body urged Thailand to protest its Muslim minority after local residents put the blame on military-backed elements.
(Photo: Thai Muslims pray at a funeral after the mosque attack, 9 June 9 2009/Surapan Boonthanom)
Reuters correspondent Martin Petty toured the area last week in the wake of the attacks. He talked to a woman who narrowly escaped an assassin’s bullet in Yala. She said she doesn’t know who wanted her dead or why. Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra blamed mafia-style smuggling gangs for the violence, but security analysts believe homegrown separatist groups — with little or no ties to al Qaeda or other regional militant networks — are behind the violence.
The Thai government hopes to stem the violence by pouring $1.58 billion in development funds into the region. But many residents told Petty it won’t make a difference, because the people are stuggling to keep their Malay-Muslim identity — not to boost local fisheries, rubber and palm oil industries.
A better idea would be to withdraw the 30,000 soldiers deployed in ther region and scrap an emergency decreee that grants the military broad powers of arrest with immunity from prosecution, they say.
(Photo: Soldiers guard a village after a police raid on a suspected militant hideout on June 18, 2009. REUTERS/Surapan Boothan)
The three provinces were part of an independent Malay Muslim sultante annexed by Buddhist Thailand a century ago and its people have long resisted Bangkok’s attempts to assimilate them.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) has just issued a report on the insurgency and says in its summary: “This struggle, nominally between a Thai Buddhist state and a Malay Muslim insurgency, targets civilians of all religions. More than 3,400 people have been killed since the violence surged in 2004. There are more dead Muslim victims than Buddhists, and many of the slain Muslims were marked as ‘traitors’ to Islam.”
Can the Thai government win hearts and minds with its planned development initiative? Or will a region that is battling to keep its ethno-religious identity and way of life in a borderless world continue to see violent paroxysms such as this month’s mosque attacks, until the governmetn comes up with a broader plan that addresses deep-seated grievances?
Here are links to Petty’s latest stories about the south:
Thailand’s Muslim south gripped by fear — June 19