From Separatism to Global Jihad

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra 

Last week in southern Thailand, in a scene that sounds more reminiscent of Iraq, a Muslim mob pulled two Buddhist marines from their unmarked car and beat them to death. Locals accused the marines of being members of a government-backed death squad. It was the latest escalation in a growing insurgency that has killed 900 people over the past year and a half. It is also an indication of the growing desperation of the Muslims of Thailand’s south, who live under virtual occupation by Thai government forces. The strong-arm tactics are those of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has attempted a series of responses to the growing unrest along the Malay Peninsula, where a 100-year-old separatist insurgency that used to be more about ethnic identity has taken on the rhetoric of global jihad.

Even Thaksin’s attempts at peace have been problematic. Last winter, he decided to launch a “peace bombing” to assuage the fury of the nation’s mostly Muslim southerners, who were enraged at the implementation of martial law and the growing rate of disappearances, reportedly by Thai Buddhist security forces. So Thaksin asked the Thai people to fold him an enormous flock of origami birds and then dropped more than 100 million paper cranes over the roughly 5,000 square miles along the Malay peninsula that make up Thailand’s deep south. Dropping the birds was intended to be a gesture of peace from the north to the impoverished south. But the Muslim population saw the “peace gesture” differently. “The Islamic understanding of dropping birds is battle,” Dr. Chaiwat Satha-Anand, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Thammasat University told me. He pointed to Sura 105 of the Quran, “The Elephant,” in which God sends down “birds in flocks” upon his enemies to flatten them like blades of grass.

The peace-bombing was just another in the government’s long list of missteps in its struggle to keep the insurgents from joining the global jihad. The worst of those missteps, by any definition, occurred last October at a town called Tak Bai, near the Malaysian border, where government forces smothered 78 young Muslim demonstrators to death in the back of army trucks. This summer, six Buddhists were beheaded. The government is issuing handguns to teachers and flak jackets to Buddhist monks. Bangkok has effectively imposed a press blackout, which is one of the main reasons the escalating conflict and Thaksin’s increasingly martial response are virtually unheard of outside Thailand.

Prime Minister Shinawatra started his career as a cop and went to America to get a master’s degree in criminology at Eastern Kentucky University; he also has a Ph.D. from Sam Houston State in Texas. Returning to Thailand, he sold IBM computers to the police force and eventually made his fortune with lucrative government contracts for mobile phones, pagers, and satellites. A billionaire telecom tycoon known as the Berlusconi of Asia, Thaksin says he likes to think of Thailand as a company rather than a country and of himself as its CEO.

Today, Shin Corp., the group of companies he founded, controls nearly all the mobile telephone service in Thailand. (Formal ownership was transferred to his wife and children when he took office in 2001.) Politically, Thaksin, who is 56, is known for his professed rejection of Western “economic imperialism,” which for him includes U.S. financial aid, even for tsunami victims, and his endorsement of strong-arm tactics for dealing with civil unrest. (To the U.S. State Department’s chagrin, he has been a vocal defender of the oppressive regime in neighboring Burma.)

While Thaksin is frequently dismissed as a traditional Asian autocrat, his actions are polarizing an already volatile conflict in southern Thailand, where the Thai government’s military action is creating ideal potential for jihad. As evidenced last week, the situation has gotten so bad that now even those who have nothing to do with the insurgency are willing to attack government troops. All this plays into the hands of the insurgents.

“For the insurgents, it’s not about getting their own state anymore,” said Dr. Panitan Wattanayagorn, a professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. Wattanayagorn, who grew up in southern Thailand, is also one of the country’s leading security analysts. “Now, because of the government’s heavy-handed tactics, a new generation is emerging,” he said. “The insurgents are on the Internet downloading and learning like crazy. This is their turf. They’re much more connected than ever. They’re organized into small cells, using local causes and religious teachers to organize them.” As we spoke, Wattanayagorn flipped through a stack of charts documenting the escalating violence. “The insurgents are looking at kidnapping. They’ve been talking about creating suicide bombers.”

Thailand has also become a hiding place for high-level international terrorists.

In 2002, five leaders of Jemaah Islamiya, a radical group that has been responsible for large-scale bombings in Bali and Jakarta, met in Bangkok; all five were said to be living in Thailand. In 2003, one of Jemaah Islamiya’s senior members who is also member of al-Qaida, a man named Hambali, was arrested in Thailand after he allegedly attempted to recruit jihadists to bomb the Bangkok Marriott. The CIA is said to have operated at least one “salt mine,” or secret interrogation center for al-Qaida suspects, in Thailand.

The links between JI and the local insurgency remain an open question. What is clear is that in the past year or so, the tactics of southern Thailand’s insurgents have grown increasingly sophisticated. Along the Malay Peninsula, there have been more than 1,000 violent attacks, including assassinations, bombings, school burnings (20 in one day), and two large-scale assaults on government security forces. In January 2004, 100 to 150 men attacked an army base, killing four Buddhist soldiers and seizing more than 300 weapons. On April 28, 2004—the anniversary of a Malay separatist rebellion suppressed in 1948—hundreds of self-proclaimed jihadists armed only with knives and totems they believed would render them bulletproof launched coordinated attacks on 11 police checkpoints. Afterward, many of the jihadists gathered in the historic Krue Se mosque nearby and awaited their martyrdom. In all, 105 were killed.

On the bodies of the dead fighters, government forces found a pamphlet called Jihad in Pattani. It contains seven fiery sermons and exhorts the faithful to kill even their own fathers if they’re working for the Thai government. “Remember that all Muslims who have faith in God and the Prophet have the warrior’s blood in their hearts. This blood of our ancestors was shed in fighting for God. Every day and night it pierces your heart and body … to leave the body and dye the land red.” It was an exhortation to a level of violence never before seen in Thailand.

For the next four days, these dispatches will follow this underreported conflict.