Trouble in Thailand

A huge upsurge in sectarian violence, including beheadings and bombings, is bringing chaos to southern provinces, where Muslims outnumber Buddhists. The royal family has issued a call to arms, but the police and army have little idea who they are fighting. Jan McGirk reports

Speaking falteringly into the camera with tears in her eyes, Thailand's Queen Sirikit told the story of how a young girl had tried in vain to replace her father's severed head on the stump of his neck while his corpse was laid out in their front room. Close to breaking down, the revered 72-year-old, who is a reluctant actor on the crowded stage of Thai politics, vowed to overcome her poor eyesight and become directly involved in the increasingly bloody battle against the phantom enemy that has ravaged the southern provinces of Thailand, claiming 540 lives this year.

Speaking falteringly into the camera with tears in her eyes, Thailand's Queen Sirikit told the story of how a young girl had tried in vain to replace her father's severed head on the stump of his neck while his corpse was laid out in their front room. Close to breaking down, the revered 72-year-old, who is a reluctant actor on the crowded stage of Thai politics, vowed to overcome her poor eyesight and become directly involved in the increasingly bloody battle against the phantom enemy that has ravaged the southern provinces of Thailand, claiming 540 lives this year.

Speaking on national television she promised "that even at the age of 72, I will learn how to shoot guns without using my glasses". She then called on the government to instruct women and children in the use of fire-arms to protect themselves against the "brutal bullying".

The monarch's rare emotional outburst was echoed by the King who warned the country "might fall into ruin" unless the cycle of sectarian violence in the Muslim-majority south can be brought under control.

Since January, more than 630 attacks with homemade bombs, of arson or of vandalism have been made in the deep south, a 20-fold increase over recent years. Notes left next to three beheaded Buddhists are not the only grisly warnings that resentment towards central government is mounting; one government railway worker was tied to tracks last month and left to be dismembered by an express train.

These are just the latest victims in a spate of attacks this year on officials, teachers, Buddhist monks and increasingly, ordinary Thai Buddhist residents in the country's three southernmost provinces - Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala. Some 1.7 million of the 2 million people living here are Muslim, making it the only region with a majority Muslim population in mainly Buddhist Thailand.

No one in Bangkok seems to know at whom they should be shooting. The government has variously blamed the violence on gun-runners, drug smugglers, bandits, crooked politicians and Islamic separatists.

A senior army commander, Sirichai Thanyasari, was talking tough but had no more answers than anyone else on who the phantom enemy is. "I admit I don't know who the enemy is but I will try my best to get him," he said.

More than 500 guns, rocket-propelled grenades and tons of dynamite and fertiliser used for mobile phone-triggered bombs have been pilfered from military facilities and private companies in the past 11 months.

Violence erupted in January when militants raided army barracks for weapons and shot dead a half dozen soldiers, then it surged again after 107 Muslim men were killed by government forces last spring as they allegedly assaulted security posts with machetes. That day culminated in the siege of the Krue Se mosque, where more than 30 young men had tried to take sanctuary, only to be attacked with rockets. Buddhist temples in the area have since been transformed into fortresses with sandbags and sentries armed with Sten guns.

The response of Thailand's billionaire Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, has been by turns brutal and bizarre and is blamed by many for edging the situation into another Kashmir crisis. After condoning the military's excessive force in a crackdown against Muslim protestors that left 85 dead last month, Mr Thaksin was told by the usually reticent King Bhumibol Adulyadej to show restraint.

Now, after dozens of retaliatory killings against southern Buddhists, the Prime Minister has implored all 63 million Thais to get busy folding up origami doves in a show of sympathy for the families of more than 500 people who have been murdered since January. In an eccentric shock-and-awe tactic, he has ordered fighter jets to bombard the restive Malay-speaking region on 5 December with millions of these paper pigeons to mark King Bhumibol's birthday.

Many academics and Muslim leaders dismissed Mr Thaksin's ambitious "fowl-folding" project as a useless gesture. Long-suffering Muslim residents, who live in the country's most impoverished region, will be left to sweep up this peace litter. They say that a more meaningful gesture would be to lift martial law in the three provinces.

One distinguished Islamic cleric suggested that most Muslims would much prefer prayers - even proffered by Buddhists. Since late April, armed escorts have had to shadow barefoot monks on their rounds for alms, after several were gunned down by passing motorcyclists.

Nimu Makajae, an Islamic leader from Yala, warned that Mr Thaksin's plan of bombing the south with paper birds might goad some militants to commit more violence and suggested that this overwhelming peace offering ought to be presented formally to community elders. But the wacky national craft project is going ahead, largely because of the influence of Queen Sirikit, who recently returned shaken from a two-month stay in the south.

The prospect of a gun-toting queen has galvanised the nation into a frenzy of origami-folding. Mr Thaksin, who is adamant in his refusal to apologise for his mishandling of the Tak Bai riot on 25 October, told a meeting of civic leaders that the queen's sentiments should be heeded.

"We will not have our Queen use a gun to defend the country, but she has shown she is ready to defend the country. All Thais can't sit idly by," he said.

Mr Thaksin warned: "Those who want to divide our country must be punished strictly by law. This is not too harsh. I will take care of them." Human rights activists consider this an allusion to tactics used to quell the Tak Bai riot, which erupted outside a police station in a border town last month.

After failing to disperse when warning shots were fired, some 1,300 prisoners were packed five-deep into transport lorries. They were placed face-down, like logs, and 78 men were crushed to death during the five-hour ride to an army interrogation centre in Pattani. Rumours circulate that as many as 40 protestors still cannot be accounted for and are presumed dead.

Government officials deny that there are further victims, and insist that the stories are linked to 20 unidentified bodies hurriedly buried in mass graves after no one came forward to claim them. Authorities have trawled the Tak Bai river for further victims, and claim to have found grenades.

A government spokesman, Jakropob Penkair, said the trouble began because the military and police forces were "so nervous ... so fearful ... so tense''. He said so many Muslim protestors were arrested because the 100 hardline militants whom the soldiers sought managed to disperse into the rioting mob. So everyone there was hauled in for questioning.

"A few low-ranking soldiers were in charge of putting them into the trucks. They were so fearful that the people in the trucks would rise up to attack them. We, as human beings, couldn't stand that fear," Mr Jakropob said. "They foolishly asked the suspects to turn their stomachs to the floor and piled one on top of another.''

Political opponents doubt the truth of this version. Many believe eyewitnesses who say that security forces aimed directly into the crowd. Six were killed instantly.

Thailand's Muslim neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, have expressed concern. Malaysia's former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, proposed autonomy for the south. "This is like the Palestinian issue," he said. "If settled early, there will be no problems. But the situation will get difficult if it is left to the command of the local army." Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian opposition leader, said. "Thaksin's initial reaction seems to be pathetic - to completely ignore the problems, and to be so arrogant," he said.

Islamic leaders have called for calm, but the grief is turning to anger. A government fact-finding mission has not soothed the situation much, as Buddhist residents feel their plight is not being addressed by international human rights advocates.

"The situation will become worse," one Pattani woman predicted to radio reporters last week. Fearing reprisals from local officials, she asked not to be named, but her assessment was scathing. "The government has used violence to solve the problem, and it hasn't worked," she said. "Police and soldiers don't understand the culture here. The authorities should use local people, but they don't."

These appeals for a calmer approach have fallen on deaf ears, while Buddhist soldiers and police have been queuing for sacred tattoos that they believe will make them invulnerable to bullet wounds. After Ah-duenan Singha, a Thai soldier, claimed to have emerged miraculously unharmed from gun battles in Narathiwat this summer, the guru monk Phra Chaiya has been overwhelmed with requests for similar protection. Once he etches a tattoo, the monk blesses the design by chanting a mantra, and then administers a swift kick to the recipient with his right leg.

Imam Winai Simun, of the Central Islamic Council of Thailand, says there is more to the armed struggle than a battle for autonomy. "It is the assumption of the state to always focus on separatism. But violent incidents have been partly caused by influential figures with underground business interests.

"This war among rival gangs and influential figures involves many people and a huge financial interest. This is caused by the illegal arms trade, the illegal oil trade, smuggling and other underground trades,'' he said.

Half of the region's 400 state schools have been barricaded due to security fears. Islamic schools are under scrutiny, after rumours that radical teachers may be preaching Jihadi doctrine learned in Pakistan's religious schools. The changing pattern of violence since a low-level separatist insurgency in the 1980s is causing alarm. Attacks have been considerably better organised, and have targeted ordinary citizens.

Few officials in the Bangkok administration are talking about addressing the underlying economic problems in the region where more than 70 per cent of companies are owned by the Buddhist minority, while Muslim labourers must often cross into Malaysia for casual work.

While, on the surface, the flocks of folded doves set to fall on the south show Mr Thaksin heeding calls for a gentler approach, the Prime Minister remains determined to ignore outside criticism of his handling of the spiral of violence. A United Nations expert on extrajudicial killings, Philip Alston, asked the government to allow him to investigate the incident. But he received a curt refusal: "It is not the right time to come," Mr Thaksen told him.

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