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Thailand makes its mark in blood
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK - The unprecedented scale of violence in Thailand's south, which resulted in more than 110 deaths on Wednesday, has placed the country's Muslim minority in dire straits.

"We are very worried about the situation. There is a lot of tension in the area," Niti Hassan, president of the Council of Muslim Organizations of Thailand, said in the aftermath of the bloodshed on Wednesday. "People are shocked by the attacks. They don't know who is behind it."

Most of those killed in the fighting were assailants, whom authorities have identified as young Thai Muslims. But equally as troubling as the bloodshed, said Niti, is the site of the heaviest fighting - the Kru Se Mosque in the southern province of Pattani. More than 30 assailants were killed there after a standoff with heavily armed security forces at the mosque, which is held in high regard by Thai Muslims for its historic value.

"We have learned that the security forces attacked the mosque," Niti said of the attempt by the government's troops to force their way into the ancient mosque, where some of the assailants had taken cover.

The violence in Pattani was part of what appeared to be coordinated attacks at dawn on 11 police stations and security checkpoints in three of Thailand's predominantly Muslim provinces, Yala, Songkhla and Pattani. The other two provinces in the area with substantial Muslim populations are Narathiwat and Satun.

According to Thai journalists reporting from the south, the authorities have identified some of the assailants as Muslim teenagers from the local communities. "They had few guns, with some only having knives," Supalak Ganjanakhundee of The Nation daily newspaper told Inter Press Service.

Since the attacks occurred, Thai television stations have been broadcasting to the country graphic images of the scale of the bloodshed in the provinces, which border Malaysia, including footage of the bodies of the assailants scattered on the ground and covered with blood.

Estimates of the numbers killed have reached 113, but that is expected to rise, officials told the media. Of that number, 107 have been identified as assailants, while five of the dead were soldiers and two were policemen.

The government of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra appears to be in some discomfort after Wednesday's bloodshed, yet that has not muted its sense of achievement at the security forces' success in confronting the assailants with minimum casualties.

"The government sees this as a tragic event. And we are bothered that the people who attacked were Thai people," Jakrapob Penkair, the government spokesman, said. "These militants deliberately planned the attacks in 11 spots that were symbols of government authority, and we had to respond."

But there were two areas of "progress", he added. "We lost very few in the attacks, but they lost more."

Just as important, he revealed, was the fact that the authorities "were tipped off by people in the neighborhood" about the impending attacks. "This reflects the faith of the people in the government's efforts in the south."

However, Jakrapob admitted that while the assailants are "Muslim youth from the area", the "mastermind [behind the attacks] remains unknown".

This week's attack has taken to a new level the violence that for months has punctuated the lives of people living in southern Thailand, analysts say.

"It is more violent than what we have witnessed in the past, particularly going back to late 2002 when the government pulled the army out of the south," Chris Baker, an author of books on Thai politics and economics, explained during an interview.

For Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior editor and columnist for The Nation, the clashes and the death toll that followed on Wednesday are "one of the single biggest incidents in Thai history in the south". And with no end in sight, he warned that worse could follow: "With this, the conflict in the south will change. We are moving towards a very pivotal period."

In early January, unknown assailants stormed an army camp in the country's southern region and stole a substantial quantity of arms, including 380 M-16 rifles, seven rocket-propelled grenade launchers, two M-60 machine-guns and 24 pistols.

The attacks have not ceased since then, as school buildings have been torched and police posts hit.

Lives have not been spared either. Soldiers, policemen, Buddhist monks and government officials are among the estimated 70 people who have been killed by unidentified attackers between January 4 and last weekend.

At regular intervals, the government has pointed the finger at various groups it claims to be responsible for the attacks, ranging from Thai Muslim separatists, who were once active in the south, to people linked to criminal organizations.

Even a Muslim group in the region that has been identified by security officials as spearheading a campaign of terror across Southeast Asia has been named.

Bangkok, meanwhile, has put forth theories about the involvement of Thai Muslim separatist groups such as the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO, also known as the New Pattani United Liberation Organization). But Muslims from the south are not convinced.

Their skepticism stems from the change in PULO and other separatist groups after the government prevailed over these groups in the 1980s. PULO, one of the oldest southern separatist groups, began its struggle in the early 1970s.

Thai Muslims, who account for some 6 million of the country's 63 million population, most of whom are Buddhists, have long complained that the Thai government has ignored developing the southern region. They also cite discrimination in educational opportunities, as well as other issues that distance them from others in the country.

But what largely sets these Muslims apart from the rest of the Thais is their unique history, cultural traditions and language, which is Yawi, a dialect of Malay. Just more than a century ago, the five predominantly Muslim provinces belonged to the kingdom of Pattani, which was annexed in 1902 by Siam, as Thailand was then known.

"The Muslims will only feel more bitter and more alienated if it is revealed that the way the security forces responded to the attack was excessive," said Kavi, senior editor at The Nation. "It will only help breed new recruits for future attacks."

(Inter Press Service)

Apr 30, 2004

Thailand: Blood on the border
(Apr 29, '04)

Terror in Thailand: 'Ghosts' and jihadis
(Apr 3, '04)

Class dismissed in Thailand's south (Feb 24, '04)

'Religious conflict' worries Thai premier
(Jan 28, '04)

Wave of violence shakes Thailand
(Jan 7, '04)


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