While Bangkokians cry foul over the deaths of political protesters, the daily slaughter in the South continues almost unnoticed About three years ago a Border Patrol police officer was praying in a village mosque in Panare district in Pattani. Moments after he concluded his prayers, a gunman came from behind and shot him at point-blank range in the head. The killer was presumably a member of a shadowy insurgent cell, part of the new generation of Islamic militants who surfaced about eight years ago but were never taken seriously until January 2004, when scores of them raided an Army battalion in Narathiwat province and made off with nearly 400 weapons.
As hard as it may be for many Thai people to swallow this reality, the word on the streets in the Malay-speaking South was that the killing of the police officer was fair. After all, the victim, regardless of his religion, was a member of the government security forces, caught up in a conflict that few understand.
But there was one small detail to this ground rule. As a Muslim, the victim was not supposed to be touched while he was communicating with his creator. This explained why the shooter had to wait until the victim finished his daily prayers.
This is obviously not part of the Geneva Convention, but it is nevertheless a rule observed by this generation of Malay-Muslim insurgents. Fortifying oneself in a mosque and fighting the Thai security forces to the death – as seen in the April 28, 2004 stand-off at the Krue Se mosque – was deemed heroic and a dignified way to die for one’s cause, in this case the struggle for the recognition of the Malay historical homeland, known as Patani.
Fast-forward to June 8 this year at the Al Furqan Mosque in Narathiwat’s Joh I Rong district, in a village called Ai Bayae. Six gunmen with automatic rifles and shotguns fired indiscriminately into a mosque full of people, killing 11 on the pot and injuring 12 others while they were in the middle of evening prayers.
Local residents who understood the unwritten ground rules immediately dismissed the statements from Thai security officials that blamed the incident on the Malay-Muslim insurgents.
They were correct. Almost two months later, police named Sutthirak Kongsuwan, 34, as one of the suspects. This incident has become a major embarrassment for the security forces because Sutthirak is a former Ranger who later became part of a government-trained village militia organization. Whether he and his associates ran amok of their own volition when they fired into the mosque, or whether they acted on someone’s order, remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the incident has driven one of the biggest wedges between the Malay-Muslims and the Thai state since the Tak Bai massacre in 2004.
When the idea of outsourcing security duties was floated years ago, no one thought about the possible fallout of handing weapons to villagers and motivating them by showing footage of dead Buddhist monks and civilians.
But when it became clear that some of these Buddhist village militias had taken matters into their own hands, no one wanted to take credit for establishing this exclusively Buddhist network. Moreover, no one can even explain the chain of command that these village militias are supposed to fall under, or whether they are supposed to be accountable to anybody at all.
Since January 2004, more than 3,500 people have been killed in the South. Most of the victims have been Malay-Muslims. It is safe to presume that Malay-Muslim insurgents have killed these fellow-Muslims, and the state would have us believe that the Malay insurgents have indeed carried out most if not all of the killings.
For people who buy into the simple and shallow explanation that the men behind the ongoing violence in the deep South are victims of distorted history who have embraced a false teaching of Islam, it is hard to come to terms with the fact that there is a community living inside the borders of this country that challenges the legitimacy of the state. We conveniently place these insurgents in the simple category of “bad guys” so we can sleep well at night and not think about the complexity of the conflict.
Indeed, we demand unconditional loyalty from the Patani Malays without seeing things from their side, much less looking at our own conduct. And because of their unwillingness to assist our security officials, much less embrace our national identity, we become indifferent to their plight and grievances, such as the massacre at Tak Bai and the killings at the Ai Bayae mosque. More than 80 unarmed Malay-Muslims died at the hands of government officials during the Tak Bai demonstration.
And yet, in Bangkok, we are up in arms over the deaths of two anti-Thaksin demonstrators during the October 2008 seizure of Parliament. One was presumably killed by police officers, who fired teargas canisters into the crowd, injuring hundreds of other anti-government demonstrators. A second person died when a car exploded, apparently because one of the bombs he had kept inside the vehicle exploded prematurely.
If we are unable to see the double standard of our attitude towards the people in the deep South, we cannot move forward as a nation, much less reconcile the differences between the Patani Malays and the Thai state.