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Thailand's Other Conflict

While anti-Thaksin crowds take to the streets in Bangkok, violence in the country's mainly Muslim deep South continues unabated. But Muslim leaders there see no foreign links, and one militant group seeks peace talks

By Bertil Lintner/Narathiwat, southern Thailand and Stockholm

As political turmoil in Bangkok reaches a head, unrest in southern Thailand has already boiled over into violence. An Islamic jihad or a struggle for national identity? There is no general agreement on how to define almost daily violence in Thailand's troubled South, where over the past two years more than 1,000 people have been killed in drive-by shootings, bombings and other random acts of violence.

Under a heavy military presence, fear is gripping the daily lives of people in the Muslim-majority three southernmost provinces, as Thai security forces raid homes in search of Muslim militants. A shadowy and elusive insurgent movement has responded by attacking police stations, government schools and other symbols of Thai authority. More recently, civilians have also been targeted. Heavily armed police search cars at checkpoints on all major roads and cruise the streets of the provincial capitals in a show of force that has not been seen in Thailand since the height of the now-defunct communist insurgency in the late 1970s. Allegations of human rights abuses tar both sides of the conflict.

While the conflict in the South is not new.guerilla movements among mainly Malay stock Muslims have been fighting for separation from Thailand for more than 40 years.several international observers and analysts argue that the nature of the insurgency has changed. Now, they assert, Thailand's militant southern Muslims are part of a regional brotherhood, championed by the Indonesia-based terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah. The group wants to establish a mega-Islamic state encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, southern Thailand, and the Muslim-inhabited areas of southern Philippines.

In a rare, recent interview at an undisclosed location in Sweden, Kasturi Mahkota, chief of the foreign relations department of southern Thailand's outlawed Patani United Liberation Organization, strongly dismissed the notion that the present generation of Thai Muslim insurgents belong to any such regional or international network. Rather, they fight to preserve a different southern culture, where the local population speaks Malay instead of Thai, and have not forgotten that they once had an independent sultanate, which was annexed by Siam in 1832 and not fully integrated with the rest of the country until the early 1900s. "We have nothing to do with al-Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiyah," said Mahkota.

He also expressed a surprising willingness to compromise with Bangkok: "Our initial goal was independence. But the world has changed and we are willing to discuss other solutions than a total breakaway. The main thing is to get the Thai authorities to the negotiating table." Talks, he said, would have to be conducted outside Thailand to ensure security for the negotiators, and transparency in the process. The organization he represents is one of the main anti-government groups in the South, and its foreign affairs department is located in Sweden, where hundreds of southern Thai Muslims live.

The interview first appeared in the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet, was picked up by Associated Press news agency and thus reached the Thai media. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra responded immediately: "The perpetrators have killed so many innocent people. How dare they ask for talks?" Supreme Commander Gen Ruangroj Mahasaranond also rejected the offer: "We are on the right track, applying various strategies to bring misguided people back into the fold. We have no need to negotiate with anyone."

This hardline approach to the problem contrasts sharply with attempts to find a political solution by the royally appointed National Reconciliation Commission, headed by former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, a well-respected senior Thai statesman. They have been more willing to listen to Muslim grievances than the government. While 75-85% of the population in the southernmost provinces are Muslim, the vast majority of government administrators, and in particular the army, are Buddhist Thai, usually hailing from other regions of the country which appear to lack understanding of southern mores and culture.

The current possibility of a new government taking over in Thailand as a result of the popular street protests against Thaksin has raised hopes among the local population for a fresh look at the problems in the South, which would be more akin to the NRC's approach than that of Thaksin. Local Muslim community leaders are extremely cautious in their public remarks so as not to end up on the authorities' "black list," but clearly share the view that a different approach is needed. "This cannot be solved by armed force. We need good understanding," says Abdulrahman Abdulsamat, chairman of the League of the Islamic Council of Southern Thailand and former chairman of the provincial Narathiwat Islamic Council.

The most trusted political figure among southerners seems to be former prime minister and current Privy Council chairman Prem Tinsulanonda, a Buddhist but a native of the nearby southern province of Songkhla. The second is another former prime minister, Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyuth, whom Muslims remember as the first Thai politician to publicly suggest that some kind of autonomy would be the best solution for the South. The third, they say, is MP Wan Mohammad Nor Matha, from Yala province, one of Thailand's most prominent Muslim politicians, who has served as both a speaker of the Thai parliament and interior minister.

The three could form a governing committee to implement new policies, Abdulsamat suggests. But it all depends on how the political drama in Bangkok plays out. If another hardliner succeeds Thaksin, the violence may well continue for many more years to come.

This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy, April 2006

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