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    Southeast Asia
     Jun 10, 2009
Old and new massacres in Thailand
By Brian McCartan

BANGKOK - Stepped up violence in Thailand's restive southernmost region saw a brutal massacre at a mosque, leading to speculation that wayward security forces may have had a hand in the shadowy assault. That attack and a controversial verdict over the 2004 Tak Bai massacre will likely dampen new government plans to reduce violence through a newly minted economic development scheme.

On Monday, unidentified gunmen burst into a mosque in the Cho Airong district of Narathiwat province during evening prayers and sprayed worshippers with automatic weapons before fleeing into the neighboring forest, according to reports. At least 10 Muslim villagers were killed immediately and two more later died in

 

hospital. Ten other villagers were wounded and remain in critical condition, according to the reports.

Army spokesman Colonel Prinya Chaidilok denied to reporters the possibility that security forces were involved in the killings, though several analysts and activists remained unconvinced. Acts of violence in Thailand's Muslim insurgency torn southernmost provinces are usually blamed on militants by Thai officials, whether they are committed against Muslims or Buddhists.

Some security officers say in private that many are killed in the region due to political and business disputes, murders which are nonetheless blamed on insurgents. Buddhist militias that see themselves as defending Buddhists against Muslims, who represent around 80% of the population in Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces, have also been widely blamed for attacks on Muslims.

Monday's massacre represents the biggest daily death toll since security forces cracked down on Muslim demonstrators in the provincial town of Tak Bai on October 25, 2004. On that day, over 1,500 people had staged a demonstration against the detention of six civil defense volunteers accused of filing false reports to the police about the theft of their government-issued rifles.

Paramilitary army rangers and police officials used water canons, tear gas and live ammunition to disperse the crowd. Seven demonstrators were killed in the melee and another 1,292 were arrested. Detainees were loaded onto trucks in prone positions and stacked five or six deep for a several-hour drive in the midday heat to neighboring Pattani province, where the army's main command center is located.

By the time the trucks had reached the camp, 78 of the detainees had died. The incident underscored to many local Muslims the willingness of Thai security forces to use extreme measures to suppress the insurgency and has served as inspiration for a new generation of ethnic Malay insurgents in its battle against the state, researchers and rights advocates say.

Those grievances were heightened by a highly anticipated decision handed down on May 29 by the Songkhla Provincial Court in an inquest into the Muslim deaths at Tak Bai. Judges Yingyut Tanor-Rachin and Jutarath Santisevee concluded that the Tak Bai victims had died from asphyxiation and, importantly, that their deaths had occurred while in the custody of state officials who were performing their state duties.

Although the recent ruling did not explicitly clear anyone of misconduct, no charges have been brought against the top officials who oversaw the suppression operation. Families of the victims and human-rights workers fumed about the wording of the decision, which they say suggests that officials' actions were an appropriate response to a situation that could have escalated and were in accordance with martial law.

As an initial step in Thai criminal procedure, an inquest could lead to further investigations and criminal charges eventually brought against government officials. But the wording of the Songkhla court decision, critics say, will likely be interpreted to mean that no further investigation is necessary.

Former army commander and prime minister General Surayud Chulanont publicly apologized for the tragedy in November 2006 while he served as premier in the military appointed government that followed former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's ouster. Compensation of 42 million baht (US$1.23 million) was dispersed to family members of the victims and charges were dropped against 56 protesters still held in detention.

Economic enticements
On the same day as the inquest's decision, current Deputy Prime Minister in charge of security affairs Suthep Thaugsuban announced government plans to spend 63 billion baht (US$1.84 billion) over a three-year period to improve living conditions in the troubled southernmost provinces. Suthep stated while unveiling the plan during a visit to the region his hope that the development funds would make local people happier and persuade them to stop helping the insurgents.

The scheme will initially cover 696 villages beginning in October and eventually expand to a total of 2,900 villages before winding down in 2012. Development projects will focus on road improvements, health services, waterworks, education, agriculture and job creation. Suthep said the scheme aims to raise the region's average annual income from the 64,000 baht, among the lowest in the country, to 120,000 baht, close to the national average. Funding for the project will come from normal budget allocations and through loans the government is seeking.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has claimed that violence has decreased since his administration took over in December, although data from Deep South Watch, an academic think-tank at the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani province, suggests that violence has actually increased since the beginning of the year. After a meeting with security officials on Friday, Abhisit said that the government's policy is effective, that enough funds had been allocated, and that the situation should improve by August.

Domestic and international human-rights groups have accused the army and other security agencies of widespread abuses, including disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions in the course of counterinsurgency operations. Although there have been frequent complaints of abuse by security forces, not a single official has been prosecuted for human-rights violations or over the killing of civilians since the present upsurge in violence, which has claimed over 3,500 lives since flaring up on January 4, 2004.

A coordinated series of attacks in early May, together with coordinated attacks in the provincial capital of Yala on May 27, has indicated to some that the insurgents have regrouped and shifted strategy in response to the government's "surge" tactics. Although there were no casualties in the Yala attacks, insurgents were able to pass through the security checkpoints around the city undetected, carry out their attacks and withdraw before security units could respond.

Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan admitted after the Yala strikes that the government cannot stop the attacks. The army, however, has called them "normal" and dismissed them as simply publicity stunts to keep the insurgency in the news. They noted that most of the targets were easily hit cell phone and electricity towers, arson attacks and long-distance shootings of security outposts and that there had been very few casualties.

Since the controversial Tak Bai decision, however, attacks have escalated. Since June 3, at least 13 people have been killed and another 49 wounded, including an eight-month-pregnant school teacher, according to local news reports. On Sunday, a large bomb killed one and injured 19 in the Yi-ngo district of Narathiwat province. The stepped-up attacks have stirred speculation that Monday's mysterious mosque massacre may have been a retaliatory state response.

To be sure, the killing of Muslims by insurgents is not new, where those suspected of serving as informants or working in cahoots with the government are known to have been targeted. But certain analysts suggest that the shooting of devotees while at prayer in a mosque would be unusual to the insurgency's established tactics.
One possible motive could be Abhisit's continued pressure on the army to bring security operations under civilian control, repeal martial law and push for reconciliation and justice in the region. The Bangkok Post reported this week that army commander General Anupong Paochinda said any replacement of martial law with a new security law for the southernmost provinces should be carefully considered. Anupong inspected the scene of the mosque massacre on Tuesday and was scheduled to hold meetings with security officials.

Although Anupong said that current allotments for security in the region were sufficient, there is rising criticism that some military officials might prefer that the conflict escalate to justify sustained budgets and big-ticket equipment purchases. Procurement plans for new hardware were put on hold this month after the military's budget for 2010 was cut by about 10 billion baht (US$291.8 million) due to shortfalls in government tax revenues.

Many analysts agree that neither increased development budgets nor enhanced military operations will end the insurgency anytime soon. The government's plan to throw money at the problem while at the same time overlooking issues of justice is possibly emblematic of the same severe misunderstanding demonstrated by successive governments.

Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached at brianpm@comcast.net.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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