For Australian holiday makers, Thailand remains the exotic land of smiles and cheap fake brands. Congratulations must go to the Tourist Authority of Thailand, which has pulled off a PR coup by separating the tourist brand of Thailand Inc from the ongoing violence in the deep southern provinces of the country. Hundreds of deaths have occurred there since the beginning of last year. A week hardly goes by without a bombing incident or seemingly random slaying.
Is there something missing in the last paragraph? A word that would have allowed the reader to process the information into a ready-made frame? I should have used the word ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islam’, but I did not. Had I used it, a reader who knows little about Thailand would have conveniently fitted the story into the dominant narrative of the ‘War on Terror’. Events in Thailand have been mistakenly reported in this manner, at a great loss to local nuance and complexity.
The Malay Muslim-majority provinces in southern Thailand – Narathiwat, Yala, Pattani and, to a lesser extent, Satun – have a long history of tense relations with the Thai Buddhist state. The southern region was once the centre of Islamic scholarship in Southeast Asia, and a Malay sultanate. Historical, cultural, political and economic grievances arising from the region’s integration into the Thai nation-state early last century have been, and perhaps remain, breeding grounds for separatist or militant-religious inspired politics among a minority of the population.
Political liberalisation in the 1980s opened a space for Muslim elites to enter the political sphere and by the early 1990s it was commonly believed that militant separatist groups were in terminal decline. However, since the nationalist Thaksin government came to office in Bangkok in 2001, high levels of politicised violence have returned.
Many people and organisations freely relate the events in Thailand to a global jihad, linking events there to a new network of trans-national Islamist militants. Some commentators, dependent on dubious intelligence reports and forced confessions, make Powell-esque presentations to argue that global jihad lies behind what has been dubbed in Thai as fai tai (the southern fire).
Others, such as the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, cast doubt on the scale of trans-national links, and suggest that the troubles relate to a revived secessionist insurgency with its roots in Thailand’s (then Siam) annexation of the territory in the early twentieth century – and the subsequent cultural, economic and political oppression experienced by the ethnic Malay Muslims under the Thai Buddhist state.
Let’s take a home-grown example of how historically complex struggles are conveniently channelled into the dominant narrative of the ‘War on Terror’. Sally Neighbour, an ABC journalist, last year released her book In the Shadow of Swords: on the Trail of Terrorism from Afghanistan to Australia. In one section, Neighbour examines the extending tentacles of Al Qaeda into South East Asia, including Thailand, through the case of reputed South East Asian Al Qaeda boss, Hambali. She then moves to discuss last year’s late-April ‘uprising’ in the south of Thailand that resulted in over 100 dead, when ‘insurgents’ launched raids against government facilities.
Neighbour declares that southern Thailand has become ‘a new battleground for jihad’ full of rampaging rebels with ‘new military-issue weapons’. She also says that after the uprising, the police discovered a plan for a seven-stage conflict escalation, involving 30 000 ‘holy warriors’, with the aim of establishing Islamic law.
The insurgents, who Neighbour describes as having ‘new-issue weapons’, were mostly armed with knives, machetes and substandard weaponry. The battle with military and police was one-sided. It was clear that many of the insurgents were summarily executed.
There was little effort by Neighbour to present a historical dimension to ethnic Malay “ Thai state relations in Thailand. Indeed there was very little evidence of research at all on the question of Thailand.
Neighbour’s discussion of a seven-point plan comes from a Sydney Morning Herald article written by Louise Williams in May 2004, for which Williams interviewed me by telephone. I informed Williams of the seven-point insurgency plan, noting that the Thai-language press had reported the plan in January 2004, perhaps earlier. I also noted that doubts exist about its authenticity or the extent to which it could explain events.
Williams’s subsequent report rightly notes that Thai intelligence was ‘claiming’ an armed insurgency was underway. She provides some details of the plan and then notes, ‘violent criminal networks in the region have their own vested interests and shadowy links to the security forces, complicating attempts to define the threat.’ This was an important qualification that has been missed in much international reporting on the south of Thailand.
Neighbour, who cites Williams’s Sydney Morning Herald article, uses the seven-point plan to paint a picture of the south of Thailand as a front in global jihad. Neighbour is not solely responsible for the misinformation, and the inflation of the threat of international terrorism. She merely dipped into the the dominant mindset that allows, not always intentionally, prejudice and presumption to drive analysis.
So what is going on in the south of Thailand? Since Thai intelligence, the military, and the government issue contradictory statements, and since no group has come forward to claim responsibility for acts of alleged Islamic terrorism, the answer is that no one quite knows – or rather, no one is telling.
The south has become a playground of intelligence and counter-intelligence, making it hard to separate fact from fiction. For example, in early 2004 armed separatists allegedly launched an assault on an army camp, seizing weapons and killing four soldiers. Within Thailand there were claims and counterclaims that military insiders had hatched the attack to cover their own arms sales to Achenese rebels. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin, as well as scholars in the south, have often attributed violence to bandits, criminal elements and corrupt elements in the state apparatus, rather than to Islamic militants.
Even some Thai military figures have treated claims of insurgency with caution. Fourth Army Commander General Pisarn Wattanawongkiri, charged with security in the south, argued that separatist sympathies had been exploited by criminal elements, including those that had been pushed from the north in 2003 as a result of the government’s war on drugs. He also suggested that established interests in the south were seeking to destabilise the government, presumably to protect various predatory interests (drugs, smuggling, protection rackets).
Thai-language commentary on the southern crisis has named various suspects (Islamic militants, older separatist networks, political “bureaucratic “military networks, the CIA, mafia) as fanning the southern fire, but none with any certainty.
Despite the uncertainty about who is behind the various daily killings and the so-called ‘insurgency’, the government has repeatedly endorsed repressive measures against people in the south, including the imposition of martial law, and an executive decree providing the government with the right to hold suspects for thirty days. Numerous disappearances have been reported by Muslim families. The Thai police or other security agents, often under pressure to produce results, have been implicated in the disappearance of scores of Muslim suspects.
The Thai case is just one example of how complex situations with long histories can fall victim to the War on Terror mentality. I am not arguing that there are no elements of a militant Is
lamist network present in Thailand. I am arguing that if such elements are present, they form only one part of a larger picture.
When journalists and commentators with little local knowledge draw on one-sided intelligence reports (show me an intelligence agency without an agenda) to reduce historical complexity to the common denominator of Islamic jihad, the myth that the world faces a global Islamist threat is enforced. Making an effort to expose poor analysis, to highlight local dynamics, and to take part in the War on Error, is a small but worthwhile enterprise.
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