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THAILAND: Losing Hearts and Minds

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jul 20 2006 (IPS) - If the Thai government feels that it is winning the hearts of Malay-Muslims in the country’s troubled south, it should look no further than a protest that unfolded Thursday outside a police station in the district of Rusoh to realise how far it is from achieving that dream.

Over 50 people from the village of Salo demonstrated outside the police station in the southern-most province of Narathiwat, which borders Malaysia, to seek the release of four villagers who had been arrested earlier in the day by the police, say media reports. Among those detained was Abdul Rahman Hama, 31, an ustad (Islamic religious teacher).

The police had placed a 500,000 baht (12,500 US dollars) bounty for the arrest of Hama, who the police accuse of being linked to a shooting incident that had happened in the area two years ago. ”I have heard of that shooting story but I am not sure if it is correct. We need to get more information,” Souriya Tawanachai, a peace activist in the south, told IPS. ”In this area innocent people are also arrested.”

”Such an open demonstration confirms how deeply suspicious the people from the Muslim villages are towards the police,” added Sunai Phasuk, Thai researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), in an interview. ”There have been similar strong reactions by the people to such arrests before.”

It is a divide, furthermore, that conveys the widening gulf between members of Thailand’s largest minority, the Malay-Muslims, who make up nearly 80 percent of the population in the three southern provinces, and the state a year after Bangkok imposed a harsh emergency decree to contain the spiralling violence there.

This week’s decision by the caretaker government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to extend the life of the decree, which came into effect on Jul. 19, 2005, has been slammed by critics. The latter argue that it has proved counter-productive and that it has worsened an already volatile atmosphere.

”Impunity for violence committed by the security forces has been an ongoing problem in Thailand, but the emergency decree has gone even further and makes impunity look like the official policy,” notes a statement released by Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. ”The emergency decree makes it possible for soldiers and police officers to get away with murder.”

Others have pointed to equally troubling features of this harsh law. ”The decree flouted constitutional guarantees on access to a lawyer of choice and the need to inform family members of an arrest,” writes Human Rights First, a Washington D.C.-based rights lobby, in a report released to coincide with the first anniversary of the emergency law. ”The decree also allowed authorities to arrest and detain suspects for 30 days without charge, an increase from the seven days allowed under martial law or 48 hours under the criminal procedure code.”

Such criticism about the climate created for human rights violations may not be misplaced, given revelations by Thailand’s army chief in April that Malay-Muslims were being arrested on the basis of ”black lists” created by authorities that contained names of likely suspects behind the ongoing insurgency. In October last year, for instance, there had been close to 4,000 names on the ”black lists” compiled for the troubled provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.

Suspected Malay-Muslims have also been taken into custody after being ”invited” to report at police stations in the south for possible links to violent acts. In May this year, there were as many as 900 boys and men who were taken in by the authorities and compelled to attend ”re-education” camps.

This legal black hole has created room for abuse in custody, says Sunai of HRW. ”Some ‘suspects’ have been pressured to sign confessions of their involvement in the violence or forced to point names of others in their community to be taken into custody.”

Little of such arrests – nor reports of people being disappeared – have left a feeling of ease among a minority who speak a different language, a Malay dialect called Yawi, and have a different faith, Islam, to the majority, who speak Thai and are followers of Buddhism. ”The decree is bad thing because the government wants to use violence to solve things,” Worawit Baru, a professor of Malay Studies at the Pattani-based Prince of Songkhla University, said in an interview. ”The people here, the Muslims, don’t want it because of the fear it has created.”

This week, senior government figures confirmed that the violence in the south was on the rise, despite the emergency law being imposed a year ago to crush an insurgency that remains the work of unidentified assailants. Periodically, Bangkok trots out a name of a group made up of Malay-Muslims it accuses of being blind the violence.

”The situation has not improved and bombs continue to go off,” Deputy Prime Minister Chidchai Vanasathidya, was quoted as having told the ‘Thai Day’ newspapers. ”There are many factors causing the violence to escalate and we are looking into improving our intelligence.”

The death toll due to this conflict reveals such a disturbing sign. When the government imposed the emergency decree, over 800 people had been killed since the recent cycle of violence in the Muslim provinces had erupted in January 2004. But by the middle of this month, the toll had inched its way to over 1,300 deaths.

What is more, an unprecedented spate of bomb blast in mid-June – 50 small bombs detonated in government buildings and near security checkpoints – added to a belief that the unidentified insurgents were demonstrating their capacity to be daring. For the three provinces are under the guard of 30,000 heavily armed troops – in addition to 10,000 police officers and some 1,000 psychological warfare operatives- who man security checkpoints and survey the hilly terrain in armoured vehicles.

The ongoing violence is the latest phase in a simmering conflict going back to 1902, when Siam, as Thailand was then known, annexed the three southern provinces, which were once part of the Muslim kingdom of Pattani. The outburst in January 2004 came after a lull in the 1990s, a period during which Bangkok felt it had contained the attacks of Malay-Muslim separatist rebels active in the area since the 1970s.

”The situation today is as bad as it was a year ago, before the emergency law,” says Worawit, the Malay-Muslim academic. ”Whatever the military wants, it can do. The government thinks the decree will work.”

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