Sunday, September 25, 2011

A new spin on the conflict


Thai police and the military are saying that drug dealers had a hand in orchestrating the deadly coordinated bombings in Golok last Friday.

ON Sunday morning, Thai expert Duncan McCargo was “slightly surprised” when he read in a Malaysian newspaper about the triple bombings in Golok, Thailand.

“What was very striking is the paper (not The Star) was quoting Thai security officials suggesting that it had something to do with drugs, (thus) giving credence to that line of argument,” McCargo, a University of Leeds professor specialising in Thailand, related in an interview at the Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) campus in Kedah.

“I was slightly surprised that the commentary in the newspaper did not in any way critique this sort of line of explanation.”

McCargo was referring to the three bomb blasts in Golok in Narathiwat province that killed four Malaysians (including a three-year-old boy) and a Thai national and injured 50 others on Sept 16.

In a statement, Thai authorities alleged that drug dealers had a hand in the deadly coordinated bombings in the Thai town about two kilometres from the Kelantan border.

“I don’t know what caused this particular incident because it has not been investigated yet. But the fact that it has not been investigated yet does not stop the Thai authorities from immediately speculating along a particular line,” noted the author of several books on Thailand including Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand and Rethinking Thailand’s Southern Violence.

Research by McCargo and Srisompob Jitpiromsri of Prince of Songkla University, Pattani in Thailand’s Deep South (Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani) has shown otherwise.

“We are very, very critical of a recent trend which is actually a revisitation of an earlier trend by authorities in Thailand to claim that a lot of the violence in the Deep South are basically crime-related incidents,” said the Briton who is also a distinguished professor at the School of International Studies in UUM.

Thai authorities, according to McCargo, talk about these attackers not as “terrorists” or “militants” but as “perpetrators of violence”.

“This generic phrase has crept into news reports because it has been fed to journalists by police and the military who have decided to keep on talking about ‘perpetrator of violence’. Srisompob and I are deeply sceptical that this is a very useful way of explaining most of these incidents,” he said.

“It is perfectly possible that people could be killed in relation to drug smuggling and other (crime-related) stories. But with the scale of the (Golok) incident – three bombs going off in a tourist area – the idea that it was to get revenge on the Thai police seems pretty far-fetched for me.”

According to the Bangkok Post, the first of three explosions went off at 6.40pm opposite the Teochew Association.

The blast, which came from a parked motorcycle, wounded a large number of passersby, both tourists and locals, and killed a Thai. About 15 minutes later, another motorcycle bomb went off in front of a bar about 300m from the first explosion. Several Thais and Malaysian tourists sustained shrapnel wounds. At about 7.20pm, a third bomb exploded from a car parked near a food stall opposite the Merlin Hotel.

There are undoubtedly, admitted McCargo, some incidents in the Deep South where there aren’t any political incidents.      

“Some of them are your normal tit-for-tat killings. Southern Thailand, and Thailand as a whole, is a very violent society. It has the second highest murder rate in Asia,” he explained.

“Thais don’t like to be reminded of this fact but actually, they’ve got a very, very serious violence problem all over the country.”

But with 4,700 people killed since 2004, the Deep South conflict is the third-most intensive insurgency in the world after Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not a normal crime

This figure, argued McCargo, did not commensurate with normal crime.

“Some of them may be normal crime but something else is going on which is much bigger. When people are shooting at military vehicles, attacking army bases, you can’t explain these incidents by reference to ordinary crimes,” he said.

“But the Thai authorities are doing the very best to claim that everything is normal, everything is all right, that Thailand is safe, everything is okay.”

It is quite dangerous, according to McCargo, to keep on talking that way as the logical assumption when you have a large bomb going off is that it is in some ways related to a political motive – some kind of separatist ethnic conflict.

The Thai authorities are in denial of the nature of the conflict. They refuse to admit that it is politically motivated and are more interested in inventing other explanations.

“They don’t want the outside world to think of the conflict as a civil war. Once you admit that, then you admit you’ve got a real legitimacy problem inside the Thai state,” he explained.

“They don’t want to admit that some kind of political problem exists. They want to believe that everybody loves Thailand, all Thais are happy to be Thai, everybody in Thailand is happy, everybody who goes to Thailand loves it, Thais are smiling, and so on. Bits of those things are true. But not all the time and not everywhere.”      

What’s happening in the Deep South, according to McCargo, is the 64 million dollar question.

“That is what we are trying to get to the bottom of. This is a multi-casual conflict. There’s no one simple explanation,” said the professor who in 2005/2006 – driving mostly by himself in an old Mercedes Benz – visited all the red zones in the three Thai Muslim-majority provinces to research the Deep South conflict.

“My belief is – while this does not account for every violent incident – at the core of the problem is the crisis of legitimacy. You have 1.3 million Malay Muslims within these three provinces who have the potential to not fully embrace a Thai identity,” he explained.

“Undoubtedly some of these people will say, ‘we are Thai, we are happy with the label of Thai’. But a large majority of them are less than 100% happy with the label Thai and would tell you that they are Malay or talk about their identity in some other way.

“There’s a historical explanation to it. Like most countries which are not an island, Thailand has a problem with borders. Thailand’s borders are extremely messy as most of them – with Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia – have changed over time. You’ve got people inside Thailand who might not necessarily think of themselves as 100% Thai.”

But that is not how the Thai state sees it.

“The Thai state believes that everybody is loyal to the basic principles – nation, religion and king. And everybody sees themselves as Thai,” McCargo noted.

In summary, the professor said there was violence in the Deep South because there was a militant movement.

“People leading this movement are radicalising mostly kids from 18 to 25 to carry out these attacks. They are able to do the radicalisation as there is an underlying legitimacy deficit and underlying political problem,” he said.

The Deep South conflict can be solved. But it needs to be solved with a political solution.

“That is the difficulty. The Thais don’t want to admit that it is a political problem, which is why they are talking about drugs and ‘perpetrator of violence’. If they can just admit that it is a political problem, that they have less legitimacy in that part of the country, then they can start to address it,” McCargo explained.

“Thais are in denial. This latest incident (in Golok) to me is an illustration of that. They are burying their head in the sand and they have been talking in this way for the last seven years.”