Friday, December 12, 2008

Thai Separatist Ties

Left: Scene from one of the targeted banks

At least 22 bombs exploded almost simultaneously today inside commercial banks in southern Thailand, killing two people and injuring 28 in a region bloodied by a Muslim insurgency vying for independence from the Buddhist majority.

The contention with the government intensified as suspected Muslim militants set off at least 22 bombs in the southernmost border province to mark the 27th anniversary of the founding of 'Bersatu'-- the United Front for the Independence of Pattani -- as an umbrella organization of various ethnic Malay movements. Bersatu means 'United' in Malay. The bombs were set off in 22 of Yala's 30 bank branches, both in the provincial capital and outlying districts.

Founded August 31, 1989 by factions of the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Pattani (BRN), the Barisan National Pember-Basan (BNPP) and the Mujahadeen Pattani, the group acquired its name in 1991.

Initial investigation found that cell phones were used to detonate bombs. Police examined closed circuit television monitoring systems (cctv), and opined that suspicious looking women might have planted the bombs. Police also defused another bomb found hidden in a hard-cover file in the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, Yala branch.

Left: Two Thai soldiers in south Thailand.

Meanwhile, police in Songkhla's Hat Yai district, the commercial centre of the South, stepped up security at the main train station.

More than 40 police checkpoints have been set up at the main road leading to city central. Vehicles and motorcycles are being searched thoroughly around the clock.

More than 1,500 people have been killed in the ongoing political strife since early 2004, most of them in the predominantly Muslim provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani. Authorities also, said that two suspects had been seized.

The army chief in the south, Lt. Gen. Ongkorn Thongprasom, said some of the apparently small devices were hidden in women's handbags or secreted into thick books carried by teenagers dressed in student uniforms.
"We received some intelligence reports, but we did not anticipate it would happen inside banks, especially on the last day of the month. We don't believe they are that cruel," Ongkorn said. Banks are normally crowded at month's end with customers withdrawing funds from their deposited salary checks.
The Islamic Bank of Thailand was among those attacked, according to reporters at the scene. The bank, set up in five southern provinces by the government, was created according to Islamic law, which prohibits interest.
"It's scary. We can't estimate the damage yet," said Pridiyathorn Devakula, head of the Bank of Thailand, the country's central bank, in Bangkok.
Last weekend, suspected insurgents killed the highest-ranking officer to die in the south since 2004. Col. Suthisak Praertsri and another soldier died when a bomb exploded under their vehicle as it was moving into a village in Yala.

Left: Thai soldier on watch.
"I believe they can make bigger bombs if they wanted to," police officials said. "They almost certainly have a deliberate policy to keep the bombings small, as the aim is not to kill but to make a political impact," the official explained.
Above: Map of Thailand showing southern Thailand in the foreground.

We are always being bombarded with seemingly, horrific stories in the mainstream media, which are presented to us as isolated events. These news reports neither give a historical background nor a political context to current events. Therefore, viewing these occurrences with a fuller understanding of their historical, religious and political connectivity will serve to stimulate our minds from the slumber the paucity of information from the mainstream media ultimately, facilitate.

Thailand's Restive South

Members of Thailand's minority Muslim community - based almost exclusively in the country's southern provinces - have been at loggerheads with Thailand's Buddhist rulers for more than a century. Thailand's Muslims often complain of discrimination and a lack of opportunities in economic and political life -- a resentment, which occasionally, leads to clashes with the authorities.

Thailand's Muslims are largely concentrated in the four southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Songhkla and Yala and represent 15% of the population. The area is less prosperous than central Thailand, and many of the region's inhabitants complain they are at a disadvantage compared to the country's Buddhist majority.

But those living in the region are also very different from the rest of the Thai population. The southern provinces were originally part of the ancient Kingdom of Pattani, a semi-autonomous Malay region which adopted Islam in the mid-13th century.

Pre-History of the Malay - Animism in Religious life

The people who inhabited these southern lands in the pre-Christian era were largely Animists. The people believed that inanimate objects had spirits which could affect the well-being of those around them. There were also considered to be spirits in trees, rocks, mountains as well as people. Animism entailed worship of ancestors and spirit worship.

Animism or Spirit worship is often accompanied by ritual chants and dances, special folk drama or masques such as the shadow play. Burial mounds usually include special items to honour the dead or assist them in their next life. These religious practices date to prehistoric time -- as far back as 3,000 BC.

These social and religious beliefs originating in Animism have persisted since ancient times and have become part of the syncretic system of Malay culture. Two thousand years of penetration by Buddhism, Hindusim and Islam have not annihilated Animistic beliefs and practices from the normal, everyday world of Malay peoples. Animism today has been assimilated to the mainstream script of tradition.

Thailand's Muslim heritage

Thailand annexed the region in 1902, but the people living there had - and still do have - far more in common with their neighbours in Malaysia. They speak Yawi, a Malay dialect, and are Muslims, abiding by Islamic rules and customs.

There's a long history of distrust of government officials among Thailand's Muslims because of the far from transparent operations in the past. This has led to the local people seeing themselves as scapegoats when officials want quick-fix solutions to please the big bosses in the capital and in the West. Muslim agitation for more autonomy began to take shape after WWII in the scheme of nationalism that was sweeping the Third World.

The practice of Islam is concentrated in Thailand's southernmost provinces, who are predominantly Malay in origin. The remaining Muslims are Pakistani immigrants in the urban centers, ethnic Thai in the rural areas of the Center, and a few Chinese Muslims in the far north. Education and maintenance of their own cultural traditions were vital interests of these groups.

In the mid-1980s, the country had more than 2,000 mosques in 38 Thai provinces, with the largest number (434) in Narathiwat Province. All but a very small number of the Mosques were associated with the Sunni branch of Islam; the remainder are of the Shia branch. Each Mosque has an Imam (prayer leader), a Muezzin (who issues the call to prayer), and other functionaries. Although the majority of the country's Muslims are ethnically Malay, the Muslim community also includes Thai, who are either hereditary Muslims, Muslims by intermarriage, or recent converts; Cham Muslims originally from Cambodia; West Asians, including both Sunni and Shias; South Asians, including Tamils, Punjabis and Bengalis; Indonesians, especially Javanese and Minangkabau; Thai-Malay or people of Malay ethnicity who have accepted many aspects of Thai language and culture, except Buddhism, and have intermarried with Thai; and Chinese Muslims, who were mostly Haw living in the North.

Sufi Islam & Reformation

Ethnic-Malay and Thai Muslims traditionally practice Sufism - Sunni Islam with a mystical, moderate edge - which prevails in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Islam supplanted Animism, Buddhism and Hinduism some 600 hundred years ago.

Over the past half century fundamentalist Islam has taken root, with at least one in 10 now following this stricter form of Islamic interpretation of the Koran.

That fundamentalism should appear is not surprising. It is strikingly visible in the men's dress, which is more Afghan or Middle Eastern than Malay, and the face-covering chadors worn by women. Increasingly they can be seen in Tak, Chiang Rai and other parts of the country, not just the south.

Further complicating the picture, some Muslims mix and match elements from traditional and fundamentalist Islam. So far the two co-exist peacefully, if awkwardly. In some villages they have two mosques, one for reformists and one for traditionalists. The the majority of communities are not split but they are feeling the pressures of this new thrust.

Fundamental Reformation

Thai activists went overseas to Islamic schools beginning in the early 1930s, where they came under influence of Koranic scholars. Thai Koranic scholarship abroad increased after WWII as they sought international support for their struggle. Some were reported to have joined the war against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan and returned to Thailand where they continued to work toward establishing freedom for their fellow Muslims and spreading a fuller understanding of the Koran.

These Muslim activists and scholars who studied in the Middle East brought back with them new ideas of Muslim nationalism along with organizational skills that galvanized the people into cohesive networks. There were sporadic clashes with Thai forces throughout this formative period. The violence eventually, died down in the 1990s - but only after the government promised to channel more funds into the region and ensure the Muslim community commensurate political representation and autonomy in their Islamic familial affairs.

However, a raid on an army depot in January 2004 signalled a deterioration of Thai-Malay Muslim relations returning the south to violence. Four soldiers were killed wherein 400 M-16 rifles, 20 guns and 2 machine-guns were confiscated from military barracks in Narathiwat province.

Since then there have been frequent incidents in which symbols of authority - including police officers, teachers and Buddhist monks - have been targeted by the Muslim resistance.

There are a number of Muslim separatist groups known to operate in southern Thailand - including Pulo (the Pattani United Liberation Organisation), BRN (the Barisan Revolusi Nasional) and GMIP (Gerakan Mujahadeen Islam Pattani).

Birth of the Muslim Malay Movement in Thailand

PULO Deputy President Lukman B. Lima charged that Bangkok illegally incorporated the far south into Thailand over 100 years ago and now ruled it with "colonial" repression while committing crimes against humanity in the area.

The southern provinces were annexed to Royal Siam in 1906. A coup in 1932 ended the absolute monarchy. A name change from Siam to Thailand took place in 1939. The royalty again took hold in Thailand after WWII, partially, due to the geo-political ramifications of the military dictatorship's alliance with imperial Japan.

Before 1939 Thailand was known as Siam, but subsequently it was transformed into ‘Thai-land’, the land for the Thai ethnic group. Whereas the people in the hills, even though they are in the territory of so called Thailand, are termed as “non-Thai.” So their identity is constructed by the State based on exclusion or otherness.

During W.W.II, the Thai regime aligned itself with Japan, while Malay Muslims assisted the Allies war effort. The Malay Muslims received assurances from the British and viewed their loyalty as a means of gaining autonomy. A Seri Thai Resistance Movement was formed in Washington, Britain and Thailand to oppose the Thai-Japan war pact. After the war, the resistance and remnants of the royalty ousted the dictatorship and formed a constitutional government. Thailand Faced few consequences for its Axis ties. The US argued that the new government fought against the Japanese and should be supported. However, Malay Muslim support for the Allies during the war became a mere subscript lost in the larger geopolitical text.

Malay Muslim fortitude and hope were misplaced in domestic and international institutions, which betrayed their allegiance. Furthermore, political developments for Muslims in Thailand became evidently disastrous. The system of democracy availed to Muslims was one devoid of representation -- neither the Thai government nor the Allies were interested in addressing Muslim concerns. In fact the situation steadily, worsened as Thai policy in the South became increasingly, repressive.

The First War

The first major Malay Muslim revolt in southern Thailand occurred in 1948 under the second Phibul Songkram military dictatorship. (1948-1957) The first Phibul government was between 1933-1944 in cooperation with Imperial Japan. The return of the Philbul II government in 1948 followed a coup that overthrew the quasi-Royalist liberal democratic Pridi Phanomyong administration. The King's assassination in 1946 facilitated the second Philbul miltary coup d'etat of 1948.

The Revolt of 1948 was predicated upon the Phibul regime's rejection of demands put forward by Haji Sulong, the President of the Islamic Religious Council. The Council sought governorships of the 4 Muslim provinces, 80% representation in government administrative posts in those areas and a Muslim Board controlling all Muslim affairs. The subsequent arrest, disappearance and presumed murder of Haji Sulong by the government in 1954 provoked escalation of the Muslim insurrection in southern Thailand.

The cadre of Muslim leaders were educated in Mecca and came back to open modern religious schools in the south. They began to break with the old school of Muslim leaders. The middle eastern influx steered southern Thailand's Muslims toward the mainstream of Islamic thought.

This new school of Malay Islamic scholars believed that Thai political intrusion into the legal and religious matters of Muslims were corrupting the purity of Islam. They felt that as true Muslims Malay ought to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed to "elevate and purify Islam." Their thought was that a true Muslim community must integrate humanity, religiosity, justice and divinity together with their manifestation in the Muslim community. Therefore, they believed that such a "pure Islamic community" could not be established and prosper as long as it remained under Thai rule. Thus the Neo-Islamo Malay movement carried itself deep in Islamic faith and outward political involvement and social activism.

In 1944 the Islamic laws of family covering marriage, divorce and inheritance were abolished by the Thai government, which had been allowed to function since the annexation of the southern Muslim region in 1902. This new civil code also abolished the Islamic family judges that adjudicated family and property matters. Many Thai Muslims went to adjoining Malaysia to seek justice in their legal matters. But also elected Haji Sulong, who had studied 20 years in Islamic law and literature in Mecca as "Kodi" or Islamic Judge. Moreover, Thai Muslims were no longer permitted to observe Friday as a holiday and most disturbing, were Thai attempts to convert Muslims to Buddhism.

With the fall of the Phibul government in 1944, the revoked Islamic laws were restored to southern Thailand in 1945. However, the government installed Sunni Muslims from Bangkok to head Islamic Affairs, or Chularajmantri, in the southern Muslim region until 1981, which the Malay Muslims never accepted.

In the 1950s leaders of the south were summarily arrested and murdered by General Phao Siyanond forces, then Director-General of the police. They were accused without trial to be working or plotting in the separatist movement against the sovereignty of the Thai State. The attacks throughout the latter half of the 20th century on Malay Muslims were characterized as war against "Communism" by Thai governments.

The long uneasy and at times hostile and violent relationship between Malay Muslims and the Thai State entered a new stage on January 4, 2004, when Muslim separatists attacked a Thai Battalion in Naratiwat Province wherein they confiscated over 400 rifles, 20 guns, 2 machine-guns and accompanying amunition. Martial Law was then imposed in all the Muslims provinces with troop reinforcement of 3 full regiments.

There followed a Thai government policy of making Muslim separatist suspects " disappear," by being "carried away." More than 400 Muslims disappeared in this manner in a few months. A government offensive saw 150 Muslims killed with 5 governments forces dead on April 28, 2004. During this government slaughter, most of the Muslims only had machetes and knives as weapons to defend themselves against modern military weapons including air power.

The Muslims of Thailand have suffered long and hard while trying to work within the confines of the State. Unfortunately, the nature of the Malay Muslim community, its well organized and structured collective actions, its Friday Prayer and big gatherings of the Masjids with its eloquent speakers and preachers as well as the nature of Islam, which does not separate religion from politics all served to alarm the Thai government toward treating the Muslim community as seditionists. The nascent Muslim aspirations in the early twentieth century to negotiate with the Siam and later the Thai government were constrained by the urges of building the nation State.

Futhermore, international pressure from Britain in lieu of interest in Thai rice, along with the urges of the Truman Doctrine of Cold War containment of Communism in Asia worked to usurp and stifle Malay Muslim hopes of navigating within the structure of the Thai government on behalf of its rights and aspirations presicely, because all grassroots movements were analyzed through the east-west divide. The proud Malay dreams were filtered through the Western paradigm of trade and strategic interests.

Having found Freedom's trail foreclosed with travails Muslim struggles in southern Thailand instead had to work themselves within a higher sense of Islamic consciousness - a certain yearning that continues to defy this harsh reality. The stark necessities facing Malay Muslims in Thailand have been situated in this brutal 100-year political legacy. Their history of strength and faith however, will eventually, forge Malay Muslim goals of self-determination. Wherefore, the events of today are not set in an ephemeral vacuum, but materially, reflect a comprehensive chronicle.
Above: Flag of the Resistnce Movement

Here are some links that further instruct on the different Muslim resistance groups in southern Thailand.

Bersatu - United Front for the Independence of Pattani

BNP - Mujahideen Pattani Movement

BNNP - Barisan National Pember-Basan Pattani

BRN - Barasi Revolusi Nasional

GMIP - Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Pattani

GMIP - Pattani Islamic Mujahideen Movement

MIPG - Mujahideen Islamic Pattani Group

PULO - Pattani United Liberation Organization

Related Links:

Primer: Muslim Separatism in Southern Thailand USCINCPAC Virtual Information Center (VIC) July 2002

Special Press Summary: Unrest in Southern Thailand USCINCPAC Virtual Information Center (VIC) 09 Jan 2004

Timeline Of Resistance


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