A second hostage incident forces Thailand's hand

Rebels from Burma take a Thai hospital Jan. 24, turning Thais against

A group of gunmen opposed to Burma's military government slip into neighboring Thailand, storm a building, and hole up with scores of hostages. Some 24 hours later, the siege is over and the hostages are unharmed.

Twice in the last four months, that scenario has riveted Thailand. In early October it was in Bangkok at the Embassy of Myanmar, as Burma is called by its government. This week it was at a hospital in this dusty provincial capital. But the parting images from the two incidents could hardly differ more. So too, it appears, the fallout from the two incidents will be poles apart.

Last October, hostages from the embassy cheered their captors, who, after gaining the international attention they desired, were flown by Thai helicopters to the border jungle with Burma and released. On Jan. 25, captives fled the sprawling hospital in terror; their captors had been killed, following a shoot-out with Thai armed forces.

The about-face is revealing. After years as a haven for refugees, Thailand now fears that the country might become a prime target for terrorists with a public relations message. Though not yet official, such a retreat from the country's open-arm policy on refugees like those fleeing the brutal Myanmar military junta appears inevitable.

"We have, up to now, always based our treatment of these ethnic groups on humanitarian grounds," said Thai Foreign Ministry's spokesman Don Pramudwinai. "We may have to sit down with other agencies to review whether there would be any change in this policy."

Since the 1970s, Thailand has hosted hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war-torn regional neighbors like Cambodia and Vietnam. Now, only 104,000 refugees from Burma remain in 11 makeshift camps. Dissidents started leaving Burma in 1988, when the junta cracked down on a burgeoning pro-democracy movement led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Meanwhile, ethnic groups have fled fighting between their hardscrabble armies and the Myanmar military.

One such ethnic minority is the Karen, a hill tribe with some Christian members in a predominantly Buddhist country. The Karen have fought for an independent homeland in Burma since the British quit their colonial outpost in 1948. But their fight turned desperate over the last two weeks. Karen soldiers from a faction called God's Army, led by chain-smoking 12-year-old twin boys, took the hospital after a recent offensive from both Thai and Myanmar troops. They demanded a cease-fire, which they got, as well as medical care for fallen comrades.

The twins are said to enjoy powers that make them both immune in battle and revered leaders. Their legend began when they helped repel a government attack in 1997. That they apparently have black birthmarks on their tongues, believed to be a sign of divine favor, has enhanced their following. It was not known whether they were among the attackers.

The captors could hardly have blundered more in their tactics. The hospital they chose to raid is a sprawling complex with many small buildings that lent itself to a surreptitious counterattack, which came around 6 a.m. Jan. 25. Their timing was terrible as well - Jan. 25 was Thai Armed Forces Day, an occasion to trumpet military might, not lose face over a stalemate at the hands of rag-tag rebels.

Unlike the embassy siege, when some in the Thai government lionized the raiders as "student activists struggling for democracy," the hospital episode seems to have turned the Thai populace and its elected leaders against the Karen.

"What happened yesterday was very different than the embassy takeover. It was a direct transgression of Thai sovereignty," says Chaiwat Satha-Anand, a political science professor at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "If you listen to call-in radio, you have heard ... a dangerous hatred toward the Karens and by extension the Burmese and others. "This dangerous nationalistic sentiment has been whipped up as a result." Mr. Chaiwat notes that the government might have felt pressure to act decisively ahead of February's United Nations community development meeting in Bangkok. "A violent response could not be avoided from the viewpoint of the state," Chaiwat says.

The beleaguered ruling Democrat party will certainly mine all the political gold from the incident. And that could well mean renewed crackdowns on pro-democracy dissidents who fled Burma and now carry on their campaign from Thailand.

At least those are the fears of groups like Alternative Asean - Burma, a nongovernmental organization that supports democratic rule in Myanmar. "Overall, Thailand has born the brunt from the actions of the Burmese government," says Debbie Stothard, a group spokeswoman. "It's terribly unfortunate that there may be a backlash on the very people that are fleeing this violence - the refugees."

And that, she said, is a case of blaming the victims."In [the hostage takers'] minds, they think, well, we have treated the hostages well. They have not lived in a world where detaining someone with force is actually unacceptable," she says. "It's as though they came from a different planet and that planet is ruled by the Burmese military regime and their values. This is why there are people who think this way."

Bottom line, Thailand doesn't want to hear it right now.

"We tried the soft way before," said Lt. Gen. Thaweep Suwannasingha, regional Thai Army commander. "We were concerned about patients in the hospital and other innocent people. We had to do it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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