TCS Daily

Thailand Ablaze?

By Manjusha Devi - November 2, 2004 12:00 AM

The heavy handed approach by the Thai authorities in handling the protestors in Narathiwat province in Southern Thailand has undermined hopes of peaceful settlements for the ongoing violence and may have even aggravated the situation further.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who just last week had stressed the need for a peaceful resolution and increase in economic activities in Southern Thailand as part of the effort to reduce the tensions, has continued to defend the role of the military in suppressing the protestors, where more than 80 lives were lost.

The Prime Minister remained defiant in the face of mounting anger at home and from his country's Asian neighbors and the U.S., over the deaths of 78 Muslims -- after seven were shot dead last Monday -- while in army detention after a riot, insisting that the military used "the soft approach."

"We are sorry for that, sorry they met an untimely death," he told the Thai Senate. But he insisted that the military used "the soft approach" and "did not fire a single round into the crowd."

The event has created an atmosphere where Thailand could see itself engulfed in sectarian violence between the Muslim dominated southern region and the predominantly Buddhist country.

Thailand has been plagued by ongoing violence in the three provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani for some time now as the three provinces have sought autonomy from the kingdom. The three provinces were part of the former independent Muslim kingdom of Pattani, and were annexed by Thailand in 1902.

The now so called 'Tak Bai' incident happened after more than 3,000 Muslims, the majority of whom were youths, gathered early on Monday morning outside a police station in Narathiwat's Tak Bai district calling for the immediate release of six village defense volunteers detained by the army for allegedly giving state-issued pistols to Islamic militants.

The military, citing fears that the situation could get out of control, decided to end the six-hour confrontation at about 1500 hrs by firing water canon and tear gas at protestors, causing the stand-off to descend into chaos and according to witnesses present there the military then started firing guns within 15 minutes.

The government later next day said that a total of six to seven people were killed due to the chaos created and that the remainder died due to suffocation caused when they were loaded on truck to be transported for interrogation to a military base some 130 kilometers (81 miles) away, a journey that the army claims takes 6 hours to cover.

The military claims that more than 1,300 protestors were taken to the Forth Army Region Forward Command in the adjacent province of Pattani's Nong Chik district.

"The authorities should have taken more time to negotiate with the protestors. They should not have rushed to disperse them so heavy-handedly," said Abdulrauman Abdulsamat, chairman of Provincial Islamic Committee in Narathiwat.

The deaths, during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, threatened to increase Muslim complaints that they are unfairly treated by the government. The resentment has fueled a revival of a long-simmering insurgency in the south in which more than 400 people have been killed this year.

The Pattani United Liberation Organization (Pulo) has now threatened to set Bangkok ablaze in revenge suicide attacks. This is the first time that the once strong organization has threatened to strike Thailand's capital and the financial center.

''Their Phra Nakhon (capital) will be burned to the ground like the capital of Pattani,'' according to a message posted on the militant group's website by a suicide squad.
Meanwhile, a group of people in the three southernmost provinces have signed a pact to retaliate against the government, according to Fourth Army intelligence reports.
Followers have been urged to kill 40 people, including civilians and informants, and to sabotage government buildings. The attacks would be carried out after funeral services for the people who died in the riot.

A source close to Police Region 9 said the militant group is recruiting men to assassinate key government figures, the Bangkok Post reported. International condemnation has also been high with predominantly Muslim countries leading, along with others such as the United States.

The United States also called for a full probe into the death of the 78 men, who were supposedly killed by suffocation and the US has expressed its concerns over the rising death toll from the Muslim insurgency.

"Thai authorities are responsible for the humane treatment of prisoners and we urge that their current investigations fully examine the circumstances of these deaths," State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said.

The US, he said, was "concerned about the continued loss of life" in southern Thailand and hopes "that the Thai government will deal with this situation in a way that does not exacerbate tensions".

Indonesia, the country with the world's largest population of Muslims, was the most critical about the incident, although government spokesman have been soft saying that they were "concerned by the escalating tension" and that the situation could be "resolved in a manner consistent with the Thai government's commitment to social justice".

Indonesia, which itself is battling various separatist rising, Islamic leaders condemned the deaths of 78 Muslim detainees who were suffocated or crushed while crammed into army trucks after a riot, saying the killings amounted to "state terrorism."

"They packed them like sardines into trucks," said Amidhan, the head of Indonesia's Council of Ulemas who uses one name. "It's inhumane during this holy fasting month of Ramadan."

"It was brutal," said Dien Syamsuddin from the country's second-largest Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah. "What happened was state terrorism. We strongly denounce it."

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said he spoke with Thaksin and urged him to work with Muslim leaders "so that the violence will not continue."

"I expressed (our concerns) that in the month of Ramadan, incidents of this nature can bring a lot of ... anger and animosity among the members of the community," Abdullah said.

Other countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Hong Kong based human rights groups have condemned the act, although Thailand has brushed aside the criticism saying it was "an internal affair" of the country.


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