Mon, Sep 19, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Thailand may be turning into a killing ground

ANOTHER INSURGENCY?What was once idyllic countryside in the south has become a dangerous region, with some links to Islamic militant groups in neighboring countries


The possibility of the insurgency bursting its southern seams, especially if Jemaah Islamiyah or other foreign groups become more directly re-involved, sends chills down the spines of Thai leaders. And given the government's record, it's likely to be caught unprepared.

After 20 months of attacks, Thai authorities haven't pounced on a single major safe house, weapons cache or bomb laboratory and haven't captured more than a handful of possible suspects.

"Why? Because the insurgents operate inside the Muslim community which won't point a finger at them, and the military is out there in the cold on its own," said Worawit, who teaches Malay studies at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani. Muslims comprise only about 5 percent, or 3.1 million, of Thailand's population of 62 million -- nearly all of them in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.

The insurgents are believed to be members of an alphabet soup of linked groups like GMIP, BRN and New PULO who have announced neither their manifesto nor leadership, communicating only through word-of-mouth and leaflets. Separatism appears to remain at the core of the insurgency although it's burnished with the language and ideology of international Islamic radicals.

Zachary Abuza, an expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia who recently visited the region, said he believes the militants have a broad agenda: "This is much more than an insurgency. This is much more of an attempt to transform society," he said. He noted that the rebels have targeted moderate Muslims and through their leaflets have warned clergy not to perform funeral rites for those they kill and threatened people who do business on Friday, the Muslim holy day.

While other experts disagree, Abuza links the violence to the growth of Salafism, which preaches a puritanical interpretation of Islam in a society where moderation and tolerance of Buddhist neighbors prevailed in the past.

"It's only a matter of time before the broader Islamic militant community focuses on Thailand's treatment of its Muslim minority. The systematic persecution of Muslims is the light that attracts the jihadist moths," said Abuza, who teaches at Simmons College in Boston.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government has veered from military crackdowns and martial law to a national reconciliation council, an air drop of paper birds symbolizing peace, a plan to distribute free TV sets to keep restive youths focused on soccer and a troupe of pop stars dispatched to entertain the southerners.

"If the Thai government continues to use violence, more innocent, neutral people will turn toward the way of violence," says Muhammad Nasir, a senior administrator at Yala Islamic College.

While Muslims killed by security forces are among the 1,000 dead, militants have killed Buddhist monks, teachers, policemen, villagers, moderate Muslims and government sympathizers.

"The big question is why aren't more Muslims in the world not paying attention to this because normally the radicals will take up the cause. The only answer I can really come up with is that they're still preoccupied with Iraq," says Abuza. "But I could imagine it would take one more Tak Bai-type incident."

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