Thursday, December 4, 2008

Window to a puzzling insurgency in Thailand

Dec 3, 2008

By Bruce Gale

Title: Tearing Apart The Land

Author: Duncan McCargo

Publisher: Cornell University Press (235 pages)

The violence in southern Thailand has long been a puzzle. Since the attack on a military base in January 2004 signalled the revival of a long-dormant insurgency in the nation's three southern provinces, its organisation and leadership remain a mystery. How do you make sense of a movement that makes no public demands, has no name and avoids statements of responsibility?

Duncan McCargo, professor of Southeast Asian Politics at the University of Leeds, spent more than a year in the area attempting to answer these questions. Based at the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani, he conducted hundreds of interviews with a wide range of community leaders, security officials, journalists, and both the victims and the perpetrators of the violence.

The ethnic Malay majority provinces - Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani - formed part of an independent Muslim sultanate until Buddhist Thailand annexed them in 1902. Attempts at forced assimilation in the 1960s resulted in the development of a separatist movement. Bangkok defeated the guerillas by the late 1980s through a combination of improved governance, economic development, amnesties and security cooperation with Malaysia.

Prof McCargo rejects most explanations of the current violence as either insufficient or misleading. These include the idea that the violence constitutes little more than banditry or is the result of economic deprivation.

The author saves his most damning criticisms, however, for conspiracy theories, some suggesting a great power chess game involving various foreign agent provocateurs. And he is especially critical of theories emphasising the role of foreign Islamic radicals. 'Terrorism experts,' he concludes, 'frequently know very little about the countries on which they write'.

To the author, the conflict is basically about political legitimacy. He argues that Bangkok's Buddhist-dominated government has always sought to prevent the emergence of a genuine participatory democracy in the Muslim south. Even the report of the 2006 National Reconciliation Commission chaired by former prime minister Anand Panyarachun - itself considered too progressive by many officials - did not consider the possibility of directly elected provincial governors.

The book traces the roots of the current violence to the election of Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister in 2001 and the decision to put the highly unpopular police force in charge of security in the south. The move dismantled a joint civilian-police-military task force, as well as liaison arrangements between southern Muslim leaders and Bangkok's royalty. Violence erupted soon afterwards, gradually escalating in response to brutal crackdowns.

Like researchers before him, Prof Mc- Cargo is unable to give a clear description of the movement's organisation. But he does provide considerable evidence that it basically consists of small cells of locally recruited members, who know only one or two leaders. Possible links with previous, more structured, insurgencies in the area are also explored.

One of the most fascinating chapters of the book deals with the incident in April 2004 in which simultaneous attacks by 'militants' on 12 security checkpoints across the south culminated in the storming of the historic Kru-Ze mosque by local troops.

The coordinated attacks suggested a high degree of planning. Yet almost all the naive young men recruited for the job by a local religious teacher (who later disappeared) were poorly armed and lacked basic combat training. Their objective was to capture weapons. But interviews with survivors showed that the attackers were not given any instructions about what to do once they acquired them, or where to meet after the attack.

As the author rightly notes, the fact that an obscure religious teacher was able to recruit such a large number of Malay-Muslim youth for such an obviously suicidal mission (almost all were killed) testifies to the widespread resentment of the Thai state. It also shows that they could be easily led. The latter point, however, is not fully explored by the author. Could it be that they lacked suitable role models? And if so, why?

Overall, however, the book is well-written and thoroughly researched. It should be essential reading for anyone seriously interested in understanding what must surely rank as one of the most puzzling insurgencies of the early 21st century.

[Religion and Politics do not mix. All countries (can I make such a sweeping statement?) with a national religion are either not very well developed, or not very stable.]

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