Thursday, April 29, 2004

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What the hell is going on in Thailand?

The Economist -- and the Thai government, apparently -- seems stumped about the latest violence in the south of Thailand:

On Thursday, hundreds of extra troops poured into southern Thailand to try to pacify the region. The trouble is, the authorities still do not seem to have any clear idea whom they are fighting or why the violence has escalated so quickly. At various times, different officials have described the attackers as Muslim separatists, mafiosi, and arms smugglers. Some have accused parliamentarians from Mr [Prime Minister Shinawatra] Thaksin’s own party of abetting the insurgents, while others have criticised Malaysia for allowing suspects to escape over the border. Many consider the militants terrorists, and have hinted at connections with outfits like al-Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiah.

Mr Thaksin, however, insists that the problem is purely domestic. Though pictures of the dead militants in the Thai media showed that many had Islamic slogans on their clothes, the prime minister insisted that they were nothing more than drug-crazed “bandits” on a crime spree, blaming local politicians for supporting them. But he has provided so many pat explanations of the violence, and promised so many times to bring it to a swift conclusion, that his assurance is beginning to look like bluster.

Reuters reports that despite some anger among the Thai Muslim minority, the religious establishment in the country has backed the government's show of force:

Critics were quick to question the insistence of Thaksin and his cousin and army chief, General Chaiyasidh Shinawatra, that drugs and crime rather than religious or separatist ideology lay at the root of the violence.

"What the two leaders do not see, or pretend not to see, is that this is not about addiction or banditry; this is about a fanatical ideology that none of us knew existed on such a grand scale," the Nation newspaper said in a front page editorial.

In the worst violence, troops fired teargas and stormed a centuries-old mosque, killing 34 gunmen holed up inside. An angry crowd gathered to watch as soldiers dragged bodies from the bullet-riddled building.

With Muslim sentiment divided between anger and support for military action at the mosque, Thailand's top Muslim cleric, speaking on national television, backed the operation.

"The authorities exercised reasonable restraint in dealing with the situation. They were patient and waited for a long time outside the mosque," spiritual leader Sawat Sumalayasak said.

"It was reasonable for the government to take such action."

Others disagreed.

"If the officers had waited for another couple of days they could have caught them alive, but they didn't. They killed them all," Uma Meah, secretary of the Central Islamic Committee of Pattani, said after a meeting of residents.

It's far from clear just what is driving the violence in the south. I'll leave it to the commenters to suggest whether the problem is local or transnational.

UPDATE: Hmmm... Indonesia is having problems with Muslim extremists as well.

Expect to read "Muslim extremism in Southeast Asia" stories for the next week.

posted by Dan on 04.29.04 at 02:53 PM


I don't know.

More importantly, where the hell is Thailan?

posted by: asdf on 04.29.04 at 02:53 PM [permalink]

Whoops!! Fixed now.

posted by: Dan Drezner on 04.29.04 at 02:53 PM [permalink]

It kind of looks as if an inchoate Islamism has taken hold in the two southernmost Thai provinces, and got far enough to inspire many very young people to mount assaults, mostly with very crude weapons on targets like arsenals. Apparently the idea was to gain access to less crude weapons. Tipped off in advance, the Thai military decided not to break up the plot but to let it proceed, had troops ready, and let the Muslims charge into a trap.

I don't know what the Thai Muslims wanted, beyond the weapons. They may not have thought that far ahead. The choice made by the Thai government is interesting, though. It's certainly not a choice any Western government would have made. I don't know enough about southern Thailand to know what kind of reaction it will provoke there. But press reports suggest that human rights groups are upset with the loss of life, and the Thai public supportive of the government.

posted by: Zathras on 04.29.04 at 02:53 PM [permalink]

When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.

posted by: G. Romero on 04.29.04 at 02:53 PM [permalink]

Got a Thai friend, a resteraunt owner that I patronize and an owner of an import-export business, he's going back to see to his interests in the next few weeks. He was telling me about what he'd heard from his friends and relatives about this uprising. When I asked him about the motivations, he said that besides the insurgents being muslims no one knew. Apparently not only is this a fanatical ideology, but it's one shorn of publicized political agendas. They don't want to popularize their cause. They want to win it by scouring the earth with terror. Now that really is kind of scary, that mindset.

posted by: Oldman on 04.29.04 at 02:53 PM [permalink]

Dan: It's far from clear just what is driving the violence in the south.

Me: Hmmm. Dead insurgents wearing Islamic slogans. Gunmen holed up in mosques. Moderate Muslim leaders side with government. A national newspaper observes that the killers possess a "fanatical ideology." Far from clear? No,it's very clear -- and familiar: This is a new front in the war against Islamist terror. It's undoubtedly funded (if not organized) by international terrorists. And it's precisely what we can continue to expect to see happen in state after state unless we do something about it.

Just wait until these barbarians buy a nuke from Kim Jong Il! Bye bye, Bangkok.

posted by: D.J. on 04.29.04 at 02:53 PM [permalink]

I think that the Thai terrorist problem has definite transnational components. In recent years, there have been an increase in terrorism sponsored by Islamic fundamentalism in East Asia-there are active movements in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. I think Thailand is no exception. Thailand has additional problems because of the strength of the Arms and Drug smuggling activities in Thailand. Typically, these activities are deeply tied in with the financing and material supply to these fundamentalist groups. Here is an article by an Indian counterterrorism expert on the rising profile of Islamic terrorists in southern Thailand. Most of these are trained in the same places that other "Al Qaeda" terrorists are.

posted by: anon on 04.29.04 at 02:53 PM [permalink]

Dan Darling (Winds of Change) and Rantburg have been on this for a while. Commenters are correct: this is al-Qaeda and related organizations stirring the pot in Thailand. The southernmost three provinces in Thailand have large Muslim populations, and these folks have complained for decades about poverty and discrimination. Add to that next-door Indonesia's jihadi problem, the ease of moving arms, explosives and cash in that part of the world, and you have a problem.

So that's what is wrong with Thailand. The government is finally waking up to the problem and now is pushing troops south to contain the jihadis.

posted by: Steve White on 04.29.04 at 02:53 PM [permalink]


There cause is death. They are encouraged to follow it by what we see abroad. It is scary, mostly because there is no way to fight nihlist revolutionaries other than to kill them, for years.

posted by: Scott on 04.29.04 at 02:53 PM [permalink]

This is not centralized, Radical Islam already runs on it's own , a couple of books about Sharia and here they go. See the problems in Indonesia or Nigeria
, Sudan.

If we dont stop Sharia now the first world civil war could start. See whats happening in Canada.

posted by: lucklucky on 04.29.04 at 02:53 PM [permalink]

People as recently as Wednesday were questioning my decision to shift an impending honeymoon from Thailand to Costa Rica. "Security concerns" had them puzzled, and faintly incredulous. Why is it surprising to people that these kind of events spread?


posted by: wjc3 on 04.29.04 at 02:53 PM [permalink]

Excuse me, are some people unaware that a war is going on? This is a global conflict---and yes, we must kill or jail all of the Muslim nihilists. Welcome to the real world.

posted by: David Thomson on 04.29.04 at 02:53 PM [permalink]

Zamfara Government Orders Demolition of All Churches
from P.M. News on Friday, April 30, 2004
Article ID: D144753

The title says all.

posted by: lucklucky on 04.29.04 at 02:53 PM [permalink]

I live in Pattaya, Thailand. I've not been following the problem daily, but do have a few comments to make.

1) 23 years ago, when I first arrived in Thailaid, there were problems with the Muslims in southern Thailand. Around the mid 80,s the problems started to go away, except for the bad attitude of those people. This was in conjunction with the increasing Good, economical conditions in Thailand. When the economic situation started to go bad, 1997, the problems started to come back.

2) It would seem that the government started mis-handling the problem from when the beginning of the reasurgence.

3)The general impression is that the problems are a) the fanatics, b) the criminals, c) the corrupt government officials, police, and military.

4) In the past, the Thai police and the military, once they set out to solve a problem, do not play the politicaly correct, GAME. They go in and sort out the problem. So far this seems to have worked for them. They have very few repeat incidents. They have delt this way with hijackings, hostage situations, and most recently with the Drug problem, (this last one is a whole different story).

5)So far, the problem with the Muslims has remained in the southeren provinces. The rest of the country remains relatively safe for a vacation and to live.

Hopefully, their pressent action will be the beginning of the end of the problem.

posted by: Jim Coomes on 04.29.04 at 02:53 PM [permalink]

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