Peace Remains Elusive In Southern Thailand

A special report by D. Arul Rajoo in conjunction with the fourth anniversary of the Tai Bai tragedy.


NARATHIWAT (Southern Thailand), Oct 25 (Bernama) — “Empat generasi akan datang pun ini (kekacauan) tak akan habis (There will be no end to this strife even in four generations to come),” a 65-year-old tea shop owner said bluntly as he spoke about the unrest in the Muslim-majority provinces of southern Thailand.

Speaking in a soft voice, the man, who only wanted to be known as Pak Wan, said nothing has changed in the last four years after separatists resumed their struggle for an independent state and violence escalated following the now-famous Tak Bai tragedy.

“Berpuluh orang kita mati tapi seorang askar pun tak masuk penjara. Kerajaan tukar ganti tapi mana ada depa ingat susah kita (Scores of our people have died but not even one soldier has been jailed. The government has changed hands but they have no consideration for our plight),” he said, recalling the incident of Oct 25 2004, during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which happened not far from his shop.

Then, hundreds of Muslim men and women had gathered to protest in front of the Tak Bai police station to demand the release of detained relatives and friends.

Soldiers and policemen, inexperienced in handling large crowds, shot dead five people and arrested hundreds of others, stacking them up one on top of another in the back of military trucks, an action which drew international criticism.

Seventy-eight of them died by the time the military convoy reached the army camp in Pattani.

Many locals and human rights organisations blamed the rising violence on the incident as well as on the earlier tragedy, in April 2004, when 32 suspected insurgents were killed after the authorities stormed the 300-year-old Krue Se mosque in Pattani following a nine-hour stand-off.

The Malay-speaking provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, which once came under an independent Pattani sultanate before they were annexed by predominantly Buddhist Thailand, had been in conflict with the Thai Government for over a century.

A number of movements were established with the sole objective of establishing an independent homeland. Among them are the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the Pattani United Liberation Organisation and the Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Pattani.

On Aug 31 1989, leaders of these groups formed the Barisan Kemerdekan Pattani (Bersatu) or the United Front for the Independence of Pattani to serve as an umbrella organisation.

After a brief period of peace during the 1980s and 1990s, violence erupted again in January 2004 when insurgents raided an army camp in Narathiwat. Since then, more than 3,300 people have died in daily shooting, beheading and bombings, despite Bangkok despatching over 20,000 troops to the restive region bordering Malaysia.

Thai Army Spokesman Col Akara Thiproj said the situation has improved tremendously, with less serious attacks on security forces due to the capture of more suspected insurgents, which he attributed to close cooperation from local residents.

Since June 2007, the military and police embarked on “sweeping operations” where thousands of villages suspected to be insurgents or sympathisers were detained and interrogated. Hundreds were sent to “training camps” between three to six months in other provinces.

In the first six months of 2008, there were 563 violent incidents, resulting in 302 deaths and 517 injuries, but this was 50 per cent less when compared to same period in 2007 which saw 1,135 incidents with 417 killed. So far, about 26 people were beheaded while more than 100 teachers were also killed by suspected insurgents.

Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, from the Cross Cultural Foundation, said the emergency decree that gives sweeping powers to the military had led to the arrest of more than 3,000 Muslims.

“We think the authorities used this decree to oppress the detainees and to get information on insurgent networks. But this method is only gaining more sympathy for separatist groups and making them go underground … in the end only small fish are caught,” she said.

Currently, more than 400 detainees are held on various charges related to national security. One of them is a university student and another is a 17-year-old youth from Malaysia who are suspected of being members of the Runda Kumpulan Kecil or militants’ ground operations cell.

“Most of them were charged for criminal offences, and for those suspected of killing government officials, they will have additional charges of involvement in insurgency. But many are poor and don’t have the means to defend themselves while the legal aid provided by the courts is insufficient,” she said.

The statistics provided by the Police Forward Command in Yala showed that between 2004 and August 2008, the courts handed down verdicts on 125 people, of which 85 (68 per cent) were found guilty and 40 (32 per cent) acquitted.

During the period, police submitted their investigation files to the prosecutor for 4,147 cases but only 325 people or less than 10 per cent of those arrested were actually charged. The prolonged detention also raised the question of torture.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said there has been no accountability for the dispersal of protesters in Tak Bai as well as for the many alleged abductions, tortures and murders which have taken place in counter-insurgency operations in the three southern border provinces.

Asia director at HRW, Brad Adams, said bringing to justice the killers of an imam detained by the military in Narathiwat in March would be a key test for the Thai authorities.

“Muslims in southern Thailand live in fear of the army storming in to take their men away to be tortured. The army is fighting an insurgency but that doesn’t mean soldiers can abuse people. And prosecuting troops for mistreatment could actually help calm the situation and rebuild trust with the Muslim community,” he said.

The detention itself is becoming a big burden for suspects and their families, who were deprived of their sole breadwinners.

A suspect might spend 121 days in detention — seven days under martial law, 30 days under the emergency decree in police or army custody and 84 days under the Criminal Procedure Code — before a decision is made whether a charge can be imposed.

The foundation, which said there are 59 detainees under the age of 18 years, has set up the Access to Justice and Legal Protection Project to source for funds to help the detainees and their family members as prolonged detention is also causing hardship and having a psychological impact on children.

Pornpen said one mother told her that her seven-year-old boy has been sleeping with a toy gun since the arrest of his father, as though as he is trying to protect the family, and has even said, “Don’t take my mother away, my father is already not here”.

In many traditional villages in the south, where men are the sole breadwinner, many children from poor families had to leave school as allegedly little or insufficient assistance is provided by the government.

Although the Thai Government under the previous military-appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont gave compensation amounting to 42 million baht (RM4.2 million) to family members of the Tak Bai victims, dropped charges against 56 people involved in the demonstration, and apologised for the tragedy, many felt that this was insufficient.

Zainah Saleme, who set up a women’s group fighting for the justice of Tak Bai victims, said some families got only 30,000 baht (RM3,000) as the victim was above 60 years old. Families with victims above 70 years of age got no compensation.

“Kebanyakan mereka ada ramai anak yang bersekolah. Duit kerajaan itu memang tak cukup (Most of them have many schoolgoing children. The government aid is really insufficient,” said Zainah, who lost her husband in the tragedy.

Despite the large number of casualties and wide international condemnation, not many foresee a strong political will from the Thai Government to find a long-lasting solution, which is the main reason why ordinary folk like Pak Wan have given up hope.

The political crisis in Bangkok continues to divert attention from the violence, more so with the frequent change of governments and prime ministers. Current premier Somchai Wongsawat is the fourth prime minister in less than 26 months.

Both the government and separatist leaders, who are mostly living in exile, are reluctant to initiate peace talks or openly acknowledge if there is one.

In 2005, former Malaysian prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad held a series of talks between the separatists groups and the Thai army in Langkawi.

Last month, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla hosted talks between the insurgent groups and Thai officials led by Kwanchart Klaharn, a military advisor to then prime minister Samak Sundaravej.

Back in July this year, former Army chief General Chetta Thanajaro stunned the nation when he showed a visual on local TV where three man claiming to be leaders of an unknown separatist group announced an end to the insurgency.

On all three occasions, the Thai government had distanced itself from the talks.

But there was glimpse of hope in September when former prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, making a comeback to the Cabinet as a deputy prime minister in charge of security, announced that starting Oct 13 there would a drop in insurgent attacks and complete peace would return by Dec 5.

Hours after the Oct 7 clash between police and anti-government demonstrators that resulted in two people killed in the Thai capital, Chavalit resigned.

With such a political scenario and with both sides unlikely to compromise on the issue of independence, peace remains elusive in the southern Thailand provinces.

“Ending the violence in the deep south requires more than a military response. Now, with the insurgents on the defensive, is a good time to take decisive steps to address the root causes of the conflict,” the International Crisis Group said.

But it said the political deadlock in Bangkok, however, makes it unlikely that the government would be able to turn its attention to the south any time soon, and the longer this was put off, the harder it would become to contain, let alone resolve, the conflict.


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