Thailand: Faces of Faith by Marwaan Macan-Markar

Inter Press Service
A burst of violence in Thailand's southern region since Sunday has forced into the open the simmering question about Bangkok's relationship with the country's Muslim minority.
The spate of attacks that has taken place - the torching of 20 schools, attacks on police posts and the raiding of a military camp -- occurred in two of the five southern provinces that are predominantly Muslim.
By Thursday, the death toll stood at four soldiers killed in the early morning raids on Sunday and two bomb disposal experts killed Monday during a failed attempt to detonate explosives. Attacks on police posts had continued till Wednesday.

By mid-week, the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra appeared to be still in two minds on the identify of the likely perpetrators of the daring multiple attacks. Some official fingers were pointed at ''bandits'' in the region, while others placed the blame on Thai Muslim separatist groups.

Thaksin himself hinted that the attacks could be the work of separatists, a comment that was hailed by some analysts in the local media. This was because it marked a departure from the usual habit of Thai governments of simply attributing the violence to bandits and common robbers -- a charge often questioned by local analysts.

''The perpetrators were not normal 'gun-trafficking bandits' as believed by some senior government official,'' Gen Kitti Rattanachaya, the government's new security advisor, was quoted in a report in the English-language daily 'Bangkok Post' on Thursday. ''One should not underestimate their strength by playing down the incident.'' . An Asian diplomat who has monitored rebel groups in the region echoes this view, noting the sophisticated manner in which this attack was executed.

''This was the work of well-trained fighters who had a perfect plan on what to strike. And the evacuation was impressive, since they have not left a trail of clues, at least obvious ones, as to where they went,'' the diplomat told IPS on condition of anonymity.

Also lending weight to such a reading is one of the targets of this week's violence. The infiltration of a major Thai army base by nearly 50 attackers was the first strike of its kind after many years. The assailants looted the camp's armoury of close to 112 assault rifles. Official concern about the seriousness of the latest attacks is amplified by the nature of the government's response - declaring martial law in the southern provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani and calling for a full-scale military crackdown in the region.

The deployment of the armed forces would mean a visible presence of army patrols and more military checkpoints in that Muslim region.

This emergency measure comes on top of martial law having been in effect for more than 10 years in six districts of Narathiwat province and five districts of Yala province.

''What we are witnessing is the highest level of military preparedness in the south since Thaksin came into power three years ago,'' Sunai Phasuk, an analyst for the Bangkok-based human rights lobby Forum Asia, told IPS.

In the past, martial law had led to ''cases of abduction of suspects believed to be involved in separatist activities,'' he added.

Such tough measures, however, have failed to stop attacks in the south. Armed clashes have occurred in Thailand's south over the past three years, resulting in the deaths of over 50 government officials.

The separatist groups whose names have often surfaced during such incidents have ranged from the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), Barisan Revlusi Nasional (BRN) or Revolutionary National Front and the Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Pattani (GMIP) or Movement of Islamic Mujahideen in Pattani.

None of these Thai Muslim groups, however, have grown in stature or fighting strength as separatist rebels in Indonesia, the Philippines or Sri Lanka. The history of the PULO, one of the oldest, dates back to 1971, when it launched its separatist struggle in the interest of the country's Muslim minority.

At the heart of such a struggle are claims by the separatists that Thailand's Muslim minority has not enjoyed the same religious and cultural rights as the country's Buddhist majority. Bangkok's highly centralised form of government and economic bias to develop the capital city at the expense of the periphery has also fed the flames of discontent.

Thai Muslims are this South-east Asian nation's largest minority, accounting for close to six million of the country's 63 million people. The area in the south where the most Thai Muslims live was once the kingdom of Pattani -- annexed in 1902 by Siam, as Thailand was then known.

''People are not sure what the government will do next. There is a sense of fear about what may happen when people go out at nights,'' Nimu Makaje, vice president of the Islamic Council in the Yala province, revealed during an interview.

''The government should be very careful in dealing with the latest burst of violence, and it has to place the reasons behind these attacks in the proper context,'' added Arong Suthasana, chairman of the Institute of Islamic World Studies here.

According to Arong, a Muslim from the south, the recent strike appeared to have the hallmarks of the sporadic attacks launched in the past against government symbols of power. ''It would be a mistake to say there is an external dimension to the incidents, without proof, like this was the work of a Muslim group in the region linked to terror,'' he explained to IPS.

Arong's concern stems from worries that have surfaced within the Muslim community in the south that they may be judged unfairly due the current global push led by the U.S. 'war against terrorism'. The arrest in mid-2003 of three Thai Muslims for alleged links with Jemaah Islamiyah, which many governments consider a terrorist organisation, exacerbated an already tense environment.

For greater harmony, the government has to do more than simply investigate the attacks, says Huwaidiyah Pitsuwan Useng, a parliamentarian from the opposition Democrat Party whose constituency is in the south.

''Government officials working in the Muslim provinces have to change their attitude toward the local people,'' she told IPS. ''They must try to understand the culture of the Muslims, and their grievances.''