Muslim unrest flares in Thailand

Two policemen were killed Monday after Bangkok declared martial law in the south, the scene of renewed separatist violence.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Just as residents of southern Thailand thought the New Year had come peacefully in spite of a holiday terrorism alert, a series of coordinated terror attacks has prompted the government to impose martial law and has renewed fears of resurgent Islamic separatism in the region.

On Monday, bombs killed two policemen in the city of Pattani, near the Malaysian border. The attacks followed violence over the weekend in neighboring Narathiwat Province, where arsonists attacked 20 schools and militants raided an armory, killing four soldiers and stealing more than 100 rifles.

The unrest casts doubt on the efficacy of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's drive to improve relations and integration between the country's 10 percent Muslim minority and the nation's Buddhist majority. The government - with unusual openness - has blamed Islamic groups for the attacks. While Bangkok has been careful to portray the militants more as bandits than separatists, some observers see the attacks as the latest sign of a latent separatism flaring up again.

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"What's happening now has never happened before," says Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst with Jane's Defence Group. "You've never seen this degree of coordination, planning, and tactical confidence."

"It's confirmation of what has been increasingly apparent over the past two years," he says, "which is that the Thais have an insurgency problem on their hands."

Martial law has been imposed across the border provinces. The region was annexed by Thailand in 1902 as a buffer against British Malaya. Historically, the Islamic Sultanate of Pattani is considered by some to be the cradle of Islam in Southeast Asia. When the area was taken over by Buddhist Thailand, it had been mostly autonomous for several hundred years, and has chafed under Bangkok's rule ever since.

This political border was overlaid on a less stark division between Thais and Malays, who differ greatly in their languages, religions, and sensibilities. The 1970s and early 1980s saw this translate into a violent separatist movement seeking reunification with Malaysia. But a shift in government policy in the 1980's and 1990's brought peace to the region.

Surin Pitsuwan, a former foreign minister and a senator for the southern province of Nakhon si Thammarat, remains optimistic about the prospects for peace. The political system has opened up so much in the past 10 years that the carpet has been pulled out from under the militants, he says. But Mr. Pitsuwan, who has studied identity politics in the south, admits that while "politically and economically, [southerners] are oriented toward Bangkok, culturally they are still part of the Malay/Muslim world."

So far, Prime Minister Thaksin has promised some $700 million in development aid for the south, which includes the opening of an Islamic university in Narathiwat. But sporadic violence since late 2001 has fueled criticism that the integration push is failing.

"The fact that in the last few years, the tension has erupted again means that it's not about policy," says Thongchai Winichakul, "Or on the other hand, it means that whatever policy is there is not enough."

The government efforts to integrate southern Muslims into the economic and political fabric of Thailand have run up against longstanding cultural barriers.

"In Thailand, part of the criteria for unity is being the same," says Thongchai Winichakul, professor of Thai history at the University of Wisconsin. He notes that while acceptance of Chinese has improved in recent years, Thailand's six million Muslims remain a people apart.

"It's true that many of them are not seen as Thai, and many of them for a long time never wanted to be Thai. We have a local population who remain very much with a double identity," Mr. Winichakul says.

Thailand's active role in the US-led war on terrorism has further estranged those in the south who see the global conflict as a war on Muslims. Since Sept. 11, the Thai government has been moving closer to Washington and was recently granted "major non-Nato ally" status, alongside such countries such as Japan, Australia, and Israel.

"The division in the South is problematic," says Chaiwat Satha-Anan, director of the Peace Information Centre at Thammasat University. "Muslims' perception of the American government's policies and actions certainly has been negative throughout the region and the world."

In Thailand's southern border provinces, Osama bin Laden remains a popular folk hero, and his image can be seen on taxis and T-shirts throughout the region. Many analysts agree that the international situation has inflamed the local one, but there's less consensus on the strength of possible links between international terror groups like Al Qaeda and local separatist groups such as Barisan Revolusi Nasional and Mujahideen Islam Pattani.

"I have no doubt that Al Qaeda operates in southern Thailand," says Angel Rabasa, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation who is studying political Islam in Southeast Asia. "After all, Hambali was captured in Thailand."

Hambali was the operations chief for Jemaah Islamiyah, which carried out bombings in Bali and Jakarta and was planning major attacks in Bangkok. Four other JI members were arrested in Narathiwat as well. JI's stated goal is the formation of an Islamic super state across Southeast Asia that would include southern Thailand.

"I believe that there are definitely, unquestionably links between Islamist insurgents in southern Thailand and JI," says Mr. Davis. "But it would appear that these links have not translated into the kind of attacks that JI is interested in, from which one can infer that the links are not that tight."

Angel Rabasa agrees that the extent of those links is unclear. "I think most Islamic radicals in Southeast Asia have far more modest objectives," he says. "What they're looking for is more of an Islamic content within their own societies. And in countries that are not a Muslim majority, they are seeking to separate themselves."

Material from the wires was used for this report.

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