Thailand: Tackling Terror Warnings

Thai soldiers
Thai soldiers in the Golden Triangle, a region notorious for arms and drug smuggling (Photo: AFP).  

The devastating Oct. 12 bombing on the Indonesian resort island of Bali turned the world’s attention to terrorism in Southeast Asia. Subsequent reports in the Western press (including the Asian Wall Street Journal on Nov. 7, The New York Times on Nov. 8, and Time magazine on Nov. 25) alleged that suspected terrorists linked to the Al-Qaeda network had used Thailand as a base to plan the Bali bombing. These claims stirred up a debate about regional terrorism and the ability of Southeast Asian governments to tackle potential threats.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra quickly called the Western media reports “rubbish” and said that he had never received any such intelligence, according to the Thai News Agency (Nov. 8). He said Thailand simply attracted a lot of tourists because of its position as a hub of the region. Before long, however, the Thai government began to change its stance. On Nov. 30, after a series of denials, a senior government official admitted that some of the suspected terrorists had passed through southern Thailand. He insisted, however, that they did not plan the Bali bombing there. It was the first official confirmation that international terrorists had used Thailand as a meeting place.

Some Thai publications credited the Western media reports with forcing Southeast Asian governments to begin to address the terrorist problem. Kom Chat Luek noted (Dec. 4) that after Bali, Canberra asked Southeast Asian countries to improve their counterterrorism measures. Travel warnings (which, when heeded, led to a drop in tourism revenues), the daily pointed out, served as direct pressure for those governments to follow through on the request. The paper further speculated that the Thai government’s admission indicated that countries in the region were beginning to deal honestly with the situation—a welcome development for Western leaders frustrated by the denials of their Southeast Asian counterparts.

On Dec. 1, talk of terrorism in Southeast Asia took a new turn when Australian Prime Minister John Howard spoke of his willingness to launch pre-emptive strikes on terrorist groups in neighboring countries if he found they were planning attacks against Australian interests. The Southeast Asian press harshly criticized Howard’s stance. Malaysia’s The Star quoted Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (Dec. 2) as saying Howard’s position could be taken as an act of war. The press in Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines said such an attack would violate international law. Thailand’s Mathichon Daily argued that approval of pre-emptive strikes would legitimize strong countries’ decisions to use force. “It is like declaring to the world that the countries with military forces can freely strike anywhere they want,” it explained (Dec. 4).

Finally, one Thai paper saw the Western terror warnings and the debate over pre-emptive strikes as two sides of the same coin. As Kom Chat Luek explained (Dec. 4): “If Southeast Asian countries fail to provide security to Western tour-ists and cooperate with Western governments, talk about pre-emptive strikes will continue as an alternative way to combat terrorists.”