Thailand's Shattered Calm

What does the average Thai, picking up the morning newspaper, think of the situation in the Muslim-majority southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat, and Satun? Just another spate of violence that affects only the deep south, which has little or no consequence elsewhere, to which the local people have become well accustomed and is therefore nobody else’s business? This prevailing sense of separateness—afforded by the luxury of living at a certain distance from the Muslim communities of Malay descent—may have already been shattered without anyone knowing it.

On Sunday [Jan. 4, 2004], some 20 schools were burned down; an army barracks in Narathiwat overrun, and its armory looted, leaving four soldiers dead. The next day, two policemen were blown up by a time bomb in Pattani. These attacks were boldly executed by armed insurgents who knew exactly what to do and what they expect to achieve.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was furious, ordering a massive manhunt to bring to justice the perpetrators of what looked very much like a renewed armed struggle by separatist groups. Martial law has been imposed in Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat as part of the government’s all-out campaign to wipe out armed secessionist groups.

The main reason why Thaksin is so worked up by the unrest and why the Thai public should shake off its complacency is that it is the first time in recent memory that a permanent army base of battalion strength has been infiltrated by insurgents.

A disgraced Fourth Army, responsible for security in the south, is still reeling from the Narathiwat raid, which caught it by surprise, and is trying desperately to regroup. With local police forces, it is attempting to restore a semblance of law and order.

Predictably, as the pressure rains down from the government, all they seem to think they have to do is to amass thousands of troops and policemen to regain control—a control they should have reinforced during calmer times through stringent intelligence and public-relations efforts. They must be careful not to exacerbate the situation through knee-jerk military action because their dismal efforts at intelligence gathering will cause mistakes to be made. As they hunt the separatists it is vital to avoid civilian casualties, which could further inflame an already volatile situation and unleash more sympathy for the secessionist cause.

It would be a grave mistake for the public to see what has happened in the South as a wake-up call only to the authorities. It is a wake-up call for the rest of us, too. The challenge in the Muslim south is to assimilate the people into the mainstream society while respecting their religious faith, culture, and way of life. It’s time we started to think about what it means to be second-class citizens who have been kept out of sight and out of mind for far too long.