by Marwaan Macan-Markar
(IPS) BANGKOK -- If the U.S. government can use excessive force in its conquest of Iraq, and the Israeli government can use the same to crush the resistance in occupied Palestine, then why shouldn't the Thai government resort to this to suppress militants in the country's south?
That appears to be the thinking of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's administration as it tries to combat any form of insurgency mounted by sections of Thailand's Muslim minority in the five southernmost provinces.
On Friday, newspapers here were full of this 'get tough' and "search and destroy" policy that Bangkok has approved in the wake of this week's bloody showdown in three of the southern provinces that left over 110 people dead.
"The army dispatched 500 rapid-deployment forces (Thursday) for a 'search and destroy' mission against an estimated 5,000 Muslim militants in the deep South," reported 'The Nation' daily newspaper.
In addition, Defense Minister Chettha Thanajaro told reporters that two battalions, amounting to about 1,000 troops, have been dispatched to reinforce the military's muscle in the south.
"The security forces have been told to be more careful, but if attacked they will respond hard," Panitan Wattanayagorn, a national security expert at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, told IPS.
On Wednesday morning, the security forces and police revealed just how tough they can be when they unleashed a high volume of firepower against the Muslim militants, most of whom were armed with knives and machetes.
It is a strategy that has evoked the use of words such as "slaughter" and "massacre" among some Thai journalists and human rights champions. "The government's troops appeared determined not to leave any attackers alive," Sunai Phasuk, the Thai representative of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in an interview.
The Krue Se mosque in Pattani, one of the three southern provinces where the largely teenage Thai Muslim militants struck, has emerged as a powerful symbol to amplify the grisly results of what critics say were security forces going on a firing spree Wednesday.
Thirty-two militants who had taken cover in this ancient mosque were killed. This is despite accounts by witnesses who told journalists that Thai troops could have checked themselves given their superior military might, and forced the militants to surrender instead.
In addition to the deaths, Muslims in the area have had to face other signs of this week's violence -- the blood-soaked floor of the mosque, which was built in the 16th century and considered very special by the people, and blood-soaked Korans, Islam's sacred book.
That the Thaksin government is now stuck with having been the cause of such images does not bode well for the country, says Chaiwat Satha-Anand, director of the Peace Information Center at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "The political cost can be very severe. It could lead to something very grave."
There can be a hardening of feelings by Muslims toward security forces that, despite having the opportunity to quell the violence by treading carefully, chose to impose state power and "trample upon our house of God," adds Chaiwat, a member of Thailand's Muslim minority.
By killing the Muslims in the mosque, the security forces may have also played into the hands of the militants' belief that they were dying as martyrs. "Already, some of the families are performing the special rituals meant for Muslims who died in the course of defending their faith," Chaiwat revealed.
That includes not washing the corpses prior to burial. "Ou Mameh, secretary-general of the Pattani Islamic Committee, said the warriors sacrificed their lives for God, so their bodies must not be cleaned," the 'Bangkok Post' reported on Friday.
This sense of seeking martyrdom has come as a shock to many Thais, the majority of whom are Buddhists in this country of 63 million people. The Muslim minority -- most of whom live in five southern provinces near the Malaysian border -- make up about six million people.
"It was the first time we witnessed people in this country (who are) willing to sacrifice their lives to attack the central authority," said Sunai about Wednesday's events.
The mostly knife-wielding Muslim youth, some between 15 to 20 years, launched a coordinated attack on a series of police posts in the provinces of Yala, Songkhla and Pattani.
Concern is being expressed in some quarters that Bangkok's response to Wednesday's bloodshed -- where 108 militants were killed, as against five members of the better-armed security forces -- could tempt more young Thai Muslims to go toward the road to what some consider martyrdom.
That cannot be easily dismissed given the Thai government's poor record of governance in the southern provinces, where policies over the years have produced a sense of humiliation and alienation among sections of the Muslim minority.
Journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk, in fact, drew attention to the legacy of neglect and marginalization in a commentary in Friday's 'The Nation'. "The Thai government, regardless of who is at its head, has always opposed any move toward greater respect for the South's history (and) religion."
"Martial law has been put into effect numerous times in recent decades; locally elected governors are not allowed; and Islamic religious leaders appointed by Bangkok seem to toe the government line," he adds.
Last year, for instance, Thaksin gave security forces the green light to get tough in the south -- including the issuance of "death warrants" -- after two government outposts were attacked.
Since early January this year, southern Thailand has witnessed an upsurge in violence, with army camps, police posts and schools attacked. Upward of 60 people, including soldiers, policemen and Buddhist monks, have also been killed by assailants.
The Thai government's military approach to the south has been to contain the activity of Thai Muslim separatist movements that emerged three decades ago. By the early 1980s, however, Bangkok appeared to have triumphed over the militants.
This armed struggle against the Thai state can be traced to the history of the southern provinces. Over a century ago, the southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Satun, Songkhla and Yala belonged to the kingdom of Pattani, but it was annexed in 1902 by Siam, as Thailand was then known.
But there was hardly a hint of martyrdom in the past rebellions, reflecting how the current resentment towards the Thai state has acquired a new, disturbing language in the south.
"There is a level of rage and attitude towards death in the south that the government needs to pay attention to," says Chaiwat, the peace advocate. "A wrong step can tempt youth who feel humiliated (so) that they have something to gain in death as a martyr."
April 27, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
All Rights Reserved.
Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.