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MUSLIM ANGER: THE THAI DILEMMA

Paper No. 1156                                                       01/11/2004

by B.Raman

(To be read in continuation of my earlier article titled "Bangladesh-Myanmar-Thailand--the Jihadi Corridor" available at www.saag.org ) 

The internal security situation in southern Thailand, which has seen a recrudescence of long dormant Muslim anger against the Government since the beginning of this year, has again taken a turn for the worse with the death of six  Muslims allegedly due to firing by the security forces outside a police station in the Narathiwat province  on October 25,2004, and the subsequent death, allegedly  due to suffocation and renal failure, of another 78 Muslims who were among those arrested during a large demonstration by about 3,000 Muslims outside the police station which led to the use of tear-smoke and firing by the security forces to disperse them.

2. The firing by the security forces and the consequent death of six Muslims, though tragic, are understandable taking into account the kind of provocative demonstration which the security forces faced. What is not understandable and needs to be strongly condemned, as it has been by many leading personalities and large sections of the media in Thailand itself, is the shocking treatment of the detenus after they had been arrested.

3. While only the enquiry ordered by the Government could establish the facts of the case, available evidence already suggests that the security forces cannot escape a major share of the blame for failing to protect those in their custody and for transporting them under apparently inhuman conditions packed like sardines in trucks which were too small for transporting such large numbers. The fact that while being transported, the detenus, many of them injured,  had their hands allegedly tied behind their back and were made to lie one upon the other inside the trucks made the humanitarian disaster inevitable.

4. What has further aggravated the anger of not only the local Muslims, but also of many living in other countries of South-East Asia was the seeming insensitivity of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra not only to the steadily deteriorating situation in Southern Thailand since January, but also to the humanitarian tragedy of October 25 and thereafter.

5. Right or wrong, there is a perception not only among the Muslims of Thailand and the region, but also among many non-Muslim intellectuals and human rights activists that his background as a policeman before he entered the world of business and then of politics has been coming in the way of a greater finesse in dealing with the situation and a willingness to hold the security forces in general and the police in particular accountable for their actions. Consequently, over-reaction against the Muslim anger resulting in excesses and human rights violations and a growing perception among the Muslims that the administration in general and the security forces in particular are anti-Muslim are adding to the complexities of an already complex situation.

6. The anger of the minorities in any country ---whether religious or sectarian or ethnic or ideological-- passes through the following stages--- communal, that is, against a community perceived as adversaries; anti-police/security forces due to their over-reaction and due to perceptions, right or wrong, that they are biased against the minorities; ant-Government due to perceptions that it is insensitive and over-protective of the security forces; and finally anti-national due to perceptions that the minorities cannot get justice as part of the existing nation.

7. A similar evolution has been  taking  place in Southern Thailand. The failure of the Government to lucidly analyse the situation and follow an appropriate strategy to tackle it has played into the hands of jihadi terrorist organisations/elements of external inspiration/instigation and Thailand faces the danger of  a situation similar to that prevalent in the Southern Philippines. The fact that Thailand had faced a similar Muslim insurgent movement in its  Southern provinces in the past and dealt with it successfully should not lead to a feeling of complacency that it could ultimately deal successfully with the present situation too without its threatening national integrity, economic stability and national security.

8. Pernicious ideas of pan-Islamic kind emanating from organisations such as Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda and his International Islamic Front (IIF) were not there in the 1980s despite the then raging  jihad against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Today, such pernicious ideas have been creeping across the South and the South-East Asian region from their spawning grounds in Pakistan and Bangladesh. They make the tasks of the security forces much more difficult than they were in the past.

9. There are five characteristic features of the situation in Southern Thailand as it has evolved since January,2004: 

  • Use of agitprop methods by Muslim clerics, similar to those used by the communists in the past, to force confrontational situations with the security forces and provoke them to over-react, thereby leading to human rights violations and alienation of the man in the street against the Security Forces and ultimately against  the Government. Such agitprop methods were typically in action in the incident outside a mosque in April,2004, and in the incident of October 25. In recent weeks, there has been a growing number of worrisome incidents of alleged thefts of fire-arms issued to Muslim members of the village defence forces in Southern Thailand. A legitimate suspicion of the Police and other security forces that these were probably not genuine  thefts, but instances of the Muslim members voluntarily handing over their weapons issued by the Police to the jihadi terrorists and then covering them up as thefts led to rigorous enquiries by the police. It was the arrest of some Muslim members, who had reported such thefts, which would appear to have led to the surrounding of the police station by a mob of 3,000 resulting in a confrontational situation. Available reports from reliable sources indicate that this was not a spontaneous outburst of public anger, but a carefully instigated and orchestrated one.
  • Targeted killings of individuals such as Government officials and their relatives, Buddhists etc by two-member jihadi terrorist squads using  motor cycles  for carrying out their attacks and getting away. The modus operandi used by these terrorist squads closely resemble that used by the Sunni extremist Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ) and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami (HUJI) in Pakistan. This modus operandi is taught in the madrasas controlled by the LEJ and the HUJI in Pakistan and in those controlled by the HUJI (Bangladesh) in Bangladesh. Many Thai Muslims had been trained in these madrasas in Pakistan and this job of training future recruits from Southern Thailand has since been taken over by HUJI (B) in Bangladesh. Reliable reports from Bangladesh speak of a HUJI-run OBL (Osama bin Laden) Trail, similar to the Ho Chi-Minh trail of the Vietnam war days, operating between Bangladesh and Thailand for bringing in small numbers of Thai Muslims, with the help of their Myanmarese  co-religionists, training them in the HUJI-controlled madrasas of Bangladesh and escorting them back. It is stated that the OBL trail is now being used only for the movement of men and not material. There is also a flow of funds from the HUJI of Bangladesh, which is a member of the IIF, to the Muslims of Southern Thailand. According to some  estimates, about 250 plus individuals---public servants and non-governmental personalities----have been the victims of such targeted killings since January this year. These continue uninterrupted, without the police being able to establish the identities of the terrorists involved and their organisations.
  • Frustrating the efforts of the Thai Police to establish the identities of the individuals and organisations involved in acts of violence/terrorism by projecting their investigation and detention of suspected Muslims for interrogation as anti-Islam . After the incidents of raids and looting of firearms by the terrorists in January, police attempts to detain and question  Ismaae Yusof Rayalong, the  headmaster of the Tohyeeming Islamic boarding school in Yala’s Muang district, and  teachers, Muhamad Hayeewea Sohor and Santi Sama-ae, of the Suwannakorn school in tambon Bor Thong of Pattani's Nong Chik district, were projected by the jihadis as evidence of the anti-Muslim attitude of the police. In the face of such orchestrated attempts to denigrate their professionalism and to project the local police force as anti-Muslim, police officers are unfortunately tending to over-react to even the slightest provocation from Muslim mobs.
  • A skillfully planned and executed psychological warfare campaign by the perpetrators of violence and the Muslim clerics supporting them to project serious incidents of violence or terrorism, which might shock the international community, as incidents stage-managed by the local security agencies in order to have the Muslims discredited as terrorists. One finds here a close resemblance between the psywar tactics used by the perpetrators of violence in Southern Thailand and those used elsewhere in the world by the members of the IIF. Pakistani jihadi terrorist organisations, which are members of the IIF, often project serious incidents of terrorism by their followers in  India's Jammu & Kashmir as stage-managed by the Indian intelligence and security agencies in order to discredit the Muslims. Till Osama bin Laden admitted the responsibility of Al Qaeda for the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, the IIF was projecting them as carried out by the MOSSAD, Israel's external intelligence agency. One saw the use of such psywar tactics by some clerics and others after the violent incidents of January and April in Thailand's southern provinces. After the incidents of January, one Abdullah Ahamad, a religious teacher in Pattani, accused the police of selling the fire-arms issued to them to smugglers and blaming the Muslims for allegedly looting them. He alleged: “The arms were stolen not by Muslim Mujahideen or by separatists, but with the help of the soldiers in the camps, and the schools were burnt by pro-government elements.” In an interview to the AFP news agency after the January incidents, Yapa Barahaeng,  a retired teacher, alleged: "Muslim groups haven't done this. It seems the government itself or the police or military have done it." he said. There have been numerous instances of such false propaganda by Muslim activists to create a divide between the security forces and the local Muslim population. We in India are all too familiar with such psywar tactics used by the Pakistani members of the IIF and should, therefore, be able to understand the dilemma faced by the Thai security agencies in the face of externally-instigated psywar attempts to have them demonised in the eyes of the Muslim population.
  • Attempts at an Arabisation of the local Muslim culture and religious practices through madrasas funded by Saudi money flowing largely from the Al Haramain office in Bangladesh, Arabic language classes and dissemination of copies of the Holy Koran in the Arabic language and exhortations to the local Muslims to  study  the Holy Koran in the Arabic language only and give up the use of the Thai language for this purpose.

10. The resulting situation, which is extremely delicate, calls for deft and professional handling not only by the security forces, but also by the political leadership, but there is unfortunately little evidence of such handling. What is needed in Southern Thailand is a carefully worked-out counter-terrorism strategy, which should, inter alia, include the following components: 

  • The use of the police as the weapon of first resort against terrorism and of the Army only as the weapon of last resort.
  • Improvement in the training of the Police for counter-terrorism roles, with emphasis on the need to act with restraint so that instances of over-reaction are avoided and on the need for better interactions with the Muslim community in order to improve police--community relations.
  • The drafting of a code of conduct with the civilian population while dealing with terrorism, the teaching of this code in the training institutions of the police and other security forces and its vigorous enforcement.
  • Revamping of the local intelligence apparatus, particularly the intelligence collection and analysis capabilities of the local police.
  • The setting-up of counter-terrorism centres similar to our multi-disciplinary centre to analyse all terrorism-related intelligence and initiate follow-up action. The centre should have under one roof carefully selected officers from all Government departments and agencies concerned with the problem of terrorism.
  • The setting-up of joint operational councils in each province affected by terrorism consisting of representatives from the concerned departments and agencies to supervise all counter-terrorism operations.
  • The setting-up of joint Psywar centres to counter the Psywar propaganda of the extremists and terrorists, disseminate the correct information to the people and to encourage the local civil society to counter the activities of the extremists.
  • The setting-up of a Human Rights Commission in the South with representatives from amongst the local members of the Muslim and non-Muslim communities, from the Government as well as from outside the Government and headed by a respected retired judge with powers to enquire on its own into all instances of human rights violations and to recommend follow-up action against those found responsible.

11. The need for  an effective Psywar is already engaging the attention of the Government as could be seen from an interview with Gen.Sirichai Tunyasiri, the newly-appointed Director of the Southern Border Provinces Peace-Keeping Command (SBPPC), carried by the "Bangkok Post" of October 10, 2004. He said: 'While the daily killing spree by militants on motorcycles must be stopped, a campaign by Psywar teams will be launched to win back the trust and support of the local Muslims. Aware of the religious sensitivity and deeply entrenched distrust among local Muslims towards authorities, I will also consult Muslim community leaders and will allow them to participate in decision-making on projects which would affect their livelihood."

12. It is reported that the Government is also contemplating a programme to encourage the Muslims to continue to study the Holy Koran in the Thai language and to discourage the use of the Arabic language for this purpose.

13. The Police seem to be still having difficulty in establishing the identity of the organisation or organisations responsible for the violence and acts of terrorism. Though Hambali, the projected operational chief of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), was arrested in Ayuthya last year, there is so far no evidence of its involvement in the acts of terrorism in Southern Thailand. After the latest outbreak, the needle of suspicion points to the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), which has threatened to launch reprisal attacks in Bangkok, Krabi and Phuket. There have already been three explosions in the South by unidentified persons---one on October 28 at Sungei Kolok that killed two persons and injured another 20 and two on October 29 in the Yala province that injured 20 people, 12 of them policemen investigating the first explosion.

14. While indigenous Muslim elements have been largely responsible so far for the acts of violence and terrorism, funding, training, motivation and instigation have come from outside---mainly from the pro-bin Laden HUJI  of Bangladesh and its counterpart in Pakistan and from unidentified elements in Malaysia. Ethnically, the Muslims of Southern Thailand are of the same stock as the Malays and the possibility of a JI link through the Malays is very much there. The Thai authorities suspect the role of a Malay religious teacher by name Pohsu Isma-al, who is reportedly the author of a  book called "Ber Jihad Di Pattani" ("Fighting for Pattani State") in instigating violence in the South.He holds dual Malaysian-Thai nationality. Earlier this year, he was reported to have been detained by the Malaysian authorities at the request of Bangkok, but it is not known whether they handed him over to the Thai Police for interrogation.

15. While the HUJI of Pakistan and Bangladesh have been providing training facilities and funds to the Muslim terrorists of Southern Thailand, there is so far no evidence of any supply of arms and ammunition and explosives. Bangkok has a large number of Bangladeshi Muslims, but one does not know whether there is any significant Bangladeshi community in the South.

16.On Page 150 of its report, the US National Commission which enquired into the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US says:" Late 1998 to early 1999, planning for the 9/11 operation began in earnest. Yet while the 9/11 project occupied the bulk of KSM's (Khalid Sheikh Mohammad) attention, he continued to consider other possibilities for terrorist attacks. For example, he sent Al Qaeda operative Issa al Britani to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to learn about the jihad in South-East Asia from Hambali. Thereafter, KSM claims, at bin Laden's direction in early 2001,he sent Britani to the US to case potential economic and Jewish targets in New York City.....KSM's proposals around the same time for attacks in Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and the Maldives were never executed, although Hambali's JI operatives did some casing of possible targets."

17. The report did not give any details of Issa al Britani, who apparently knew both KSM and bin Laden and enjoyed their confidence to such an extent that he was entrusted with some of the preparatory work relating to future operations not only in the USA, but also in South-East Asia. In the beginning of August,2004, the British intelligence rounded up 12 suspects, reportedly on a tip-off received from the Pakistani intelligence on the basis of their interrogation of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, a young Pakistani computer   expert, who has been projected as the communications expert of  Al Qaeda, and who was arrested at Lahore on July 12,2004, and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani , a Tanzanian national, who was wanted by the USA's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), for prosecution in the case relating to the explosions outside the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August,1998 and who was arrested at Gujrat in Pakistani Punjab on July 25,2004.

18. Of these, eight have since been charged before the Old Bailey Criminal Court in London. One of them is stated to be a convert to Islam, from a Hindu family which had migrated to the UK from Kenya in 1973 and the other seven are reported to be of Pakistani origin. The Hindu convert to Islam is Dhiran Barot, 32, also known as (aka) Bilal aka Abu Musa al-Hindi aka Abu Eissa al-Hindi, who has reportedly been established by the British intelligence as none other than Al Britani referred to in the National Commission's report. It may also be recalled that two of the Al Qaeda terrorists involved in the 9/11 terrorist strikes were reported to have visited Bangkok to study how the Thai immigration at the airport works. Thus, Al Qaeda, the HUJI, the HUJI (B) and other components of the IIF have had a long history of interest in Thailand at least since 2000 and this interest speaks of the likelihood of their having sleeper cells there, which have not yet been detected by the Thai authorities. 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-Mail: corde@vsnl.com )

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