The likelihood of violence spiralling out of control in Bangkok, Thailand, has increased with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s threat of using live ammunition against the ‘red shirt’ protestors, killing and wounding scores of protestors.
The image of this country as a passive, non-violent Bhuddist nation has long been belied by it’s brutal decades-long campaign against the Muslims in the south of the country.
The Thai government, which placed Bangkok and surrounding provinces under emergency law in April 2010, moved to enforce the decree by sending troops to clear the supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) from Phan Fa Bridge. The move sparked bloody clashes as the protesters refused to budge and fought back with sticks, Molotov cocktails, grenades and rifles.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators of the UDD, also called “red shirts” because of their garb, have been staging protests at Phan Fa Bridge for over a month, calling on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament and hold new elections. The mainly rural poor "red shirts" are pressing their demand that the Prime Minister resign on the grounds he is holding office illegitimately, as he was elected after two Thaksin loyalist governments were ejected by the courts.
This internal political turmoil afflicting the Thai government must be viewed in the context of the conflict regarding Muslims in the south of Thailand.
Graphic media coverage of violence, coupled with a lack of information on the perpetrators of violence, has led to numerous speculations on the causes of the conflict in Malay Muslim dominated Southern Thailand. Are Malays simply the victims of harassment or failed policies by the Thai government? Is the insurgency only driven by an irrational desire for revenge or traditionalism? To what extent are Malay insurgents organised? Are they inspired by local nationalism or by transnational jihadist ideas?
More than 3,900 people have been killed in six years of unrest, as ethnic Malay Muslims fight for autonomy from Thailand’s Buddhist majority in the region just a few hours by car from some of Thailand’s best-known tourist beaches. Separatist violence has occurred in Southern Thailand for decades, but the campaign escalated sharply in 2004. Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist nation of around 60 million people. About 10% of the population is Muslim, living mostly in the five southern provinces bordering Malaysia.
Previously a sovereign Islamic dynasty, the southern region of Pattani was conquered by Siam (Thailand) and over time divided into the three provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Most of the insurgency’s violent incidents occur in this region of 3.1 million people. Local Muslims largely oppose the presence of tens of thousands of police, soldiers and state-armed Bhuddist guards in this rubber-producing region.
The attacks are directed against Buddhist majority’s claim to moral superiority and right to rule Southern Thailand on two fronts. On the one hand, resistance targets the violent occupation of the once-independent sultanate of Pattani. On the other hand, insurgents argue that the integration of the region into the Thai state has led to the destruction of Islam in the region. Both arguments are used to justify of a (local) jihad against Thai rule.
This nationalist awareness contributed to the Pattanese perception that Thai rule is part of a global campaign aimed at suppressing Muslims worldwide. Reports indicate that the US is seeking to establish a military base in Thailand to help government forces combat Muslim separatists. If the US eventually takes an active role in suppressing Muslims in the south, the global confrontation between Muslims and the US will widen.
Moreover, a crackdown on Pattanese Muslims may also have ripple effects throughout Southeast Asia due to the multiple ideological and logistical linkages between Muslim separatists operating in the region.
Monsour Salleh, an activist and businessman from Pattani, sums up the views of many Muslims in the south: “Islam is our discipline and way of life," Monsour said. "… because of Islam we can protect our identity, we can develop our soul, and we can develop our lifestyle. So the outside should understand that Islam is the main role of religion here, not Buddhist."
This sensitive, delicate, and complicated conflict has gradually increased over time. It is intertwined with historical, political, security, and economic factors that necessitate a deep and clear understanding of the conflict’s root causes.
The most recent episodes of violence against Muslims in Pattani has significant internal repercussions, as seen with the recent violence with the “red shirts”. The Thai government has thus far failed to realize that heavy-handed security-based approaches end up radicalizing oppressed communities and increasing popular support for resistance groups.
The US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the continuing presence of foreign troops in many Muslim societies have already worked to radicalize the Muslim community in Thailand and increase their awareness of global Muslim grievances.
The struggle in the South and now in Bangkok is an attempt to break Thailand out of a pattern of military intervention that supports an elite bureaucratic system.
There exists a real possibility that the current conflict could embroil the nation into a prolonged civil war, fracturing the country and transforming the ‘Land of Smiles’ into the land of tears.