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308Save the South from fanatic Islamists

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    Feb 26, 2007
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      Save the South from fanatic Islamists

      There are a number of approaches that can be taken to deal with the escalating crisis in the southernmost provinces of Thailand, but there is no time to waste

      By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

      In dealing with the southern violence, every approach has its dangers, none more so than doing nothing. The challenge is to find a course of action that is firm but wise, tough but compassionate.

      While violence instigating racial and religious intolerance is in itself intolerable, and the deliberate hurting of civilians must be punished and condemned, it is important, even for the victims of violence, to guard against absorbing the infectious hate sown by political agitators.

      Sectarian strife in Iraq and elsewhere makes it all too plain that violence begets violence.

      It is human to become uncontrollably angry when one bears witness to the killing of innocents. Yet restraint is still called for. The insurgents in the deep South, as elsewhere, thrive on retributive violence. To win over their "own kind" they must court bloodshed, to make ogres of their enemies. Heavy-handed counter-insurgency, any harsh reaction on the part of the state is a boon to rebel recruiting and propaganda. See how they hate us? See why we must fight back with guns and bombs and our bodies?

      Counter-insurgency has a long and troubled history because it often produces the opposite of its intended result. If there is one lesson to be drawn from past mistakes in Vietnam and elsewhere it is this: the battle of guns must be subordinate to the battle of ideas.

      The few cases where counter-insurgency programmes were effective, or at least did not lead to unmitigated disaster, demonstrate the primacy of politics over armaments. Britain was successful in rolling back the onslaught of the Communist Party of Malaya during the Emergency in the 1950's by elevating the economic and political status of the-then disadvantaged Chinese communities from whence most the rebels were recruited.

      In Thailand, the heavy-handed junta crackdowns on the democracy movement of the 1970's drove a generation of youth to the jungle; it took the restraint and political wisdom of the progressive wing of the Thai military to effectively broker peace through amnesty in the early 1980's, bringing the Thai Octoberists and communists back into the fold.

      The Surayud Chulanont administration appears to understand these dynamics intimately, one would expect nothing less from an old soldier who contributed to the defeat of Thai communism because he understood, through the example of his own father, that Thai radicals, however misguided, were full-blooded human members of the same national community, not anonymous monsters and subhuman ogres.

      But even if Gen Surayud is taking the right approach towards the South, it will take time to recover trust frittered away by the arrogant errors of the police and military under ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra's command. And differences between militant Islamists and communists need be taken into account.

      The Thai communists, daunting though they were in their day, shared with every Thai school child a similar mental map, a vision for a multi-ethnic community called Thailand. The same cannot be said for fundamentalist insurgents; from all indications they want out.

      Murky and shadowy the southern insurgents may be, the crisis is real and rising; the insane cruelty of their actions is crystal clear.

      Looking at the targets of violence, one can detect a pathological fear not only of the Thai state but even Thai culture itself. Repeated, tightly-focused attacks on state cultural institutions such as schools, Buddhist temples and soft targets such as car showrooms and karaoke bars all point to a resentful fundamentalist agenda. For the sake of sovereignty and survival, the dismantling and discrediting of the errant fundamentalist vision is an essential task. Intolerant Islamism must be confronted head on, while simultaneously, moderate Islam must be embraced and cherished as part of the national polity.

      Buddhist and Confucian citizens of the southernmost provinces need little convincing about the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism; they are paying for it with their lives. But moderate Muslims are victims too, in even greater numbers than non-Muslims.

      The critical population is caught in the middle, and they should not be tarred with the same brush as the terrorists but drawn back into mainstream society. Thai Muslim youth who under normal conditions would be comfortable with, if not outright proud of being part of a diverse, cosmopolitan entity called Thailand, are not being permitted to get a Thai education, to read Thai papers or watch Thai TV. Such youth, deliberately denied links with the larger Thai society, turn inwards. Their legitimate local grievances are intensified by the ranting of religious figures and the sympathetic vibrations of apparent atrocities against Muslims all around the world. Unemployed and enraged with no place to go, such youth are malleable and easily indoctrinated.

      It is the common fate of minorities, be it Buddhists in a predominantly Muslim country like Malaysia, or Muslims in predominantly Buddhist country, to feel a bit insecure and slightly suspicious of the majority. But in southern Thailand, the paranoia is out of control.

      One reassuring gesture would be to call for greater involvement and support from Bangkok's large and highly assimilated Muslim community, to reassure their disaffected co-religionists that it is possible to live a good Muslim life in perfect harmony with non-Muslim friends and neighbours.

      Another font of benevolant influence is that of the Royal Palace. The Thai monarchy predates nationalistic democracy, which for all its good points has the attendent tendency to elevate the status of the majority ethnic group. This less than ideal aspect of majority rule was evidenced in the name change from Siam, a multinational realm, to Prathet-Thai, with its emphasis on ethnic Thai.

      Constitutional monarchy at its best serves as a symbolic umbrella for every last citizen regardless of race or creed; an informal but powerful unifying influence that can tide a nation over in time of division and crisis. Furthermore, the monarchy enjoys far more prestige with Thai Muslims than it did with Thai communists (whose ideology was inherently republican) and that is something that can be built on. The ritual hierarchies of royalty, in effect a respected parental figure, fits well with popular Muslim culture.

      Thailand clearly possesses the cultural tools and innate comfort with diversity needed to reintegrate the troubled fringe of the South with the rest of the country. But time is running out; the conflict is acute and could escalate.

      This would be a good time for politicians in and out of power to put petty differences aside and instead summon up the considerable courage and attention required to save the South from utter ruin.

      * Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.