For a long while now, her neighbors envied her. While they suffered under colonial rules, she alone in Southeast Asia developed independently and in peace. While they suffered from insurgencies and warfare, torn apart by opposing Cold War ideologies, she grew in confidence and sophistication, all the while under a constitutional monarchy. Indeed, by all geopolitical standards, Thailand seems a blessed country.
Until now. In the southernmost province of Narathiwat, near the Malaysian border, insurgents attacked security checkpoints and police stations. Police and security forces shot dead 107 machete-wielding youths, and the image of Thailand as a peaceful country—the “land of a thousand smiles”—is all but tarnished.
Known as the tourist Mecca of Southeast Asia, Thailand always has had a grimmer side, one that it tries to keep tightly under wraps. Now, images of teenagers lying in pools of blood crowd the front pages of newspapers.
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin dismissed the insurgents as local youths and gangs. But the rebels have legitimate grievances. The two southernmost provinces are Muslim majority, but live under Buddhist minority domination. From culture to language—many Muslims in the southern provinces speak Yawi and not Thai—to economic status, they live as an ostracized minority. Police brutalities and crackdowns are routine in the south. Human rights activists have railed against the torture and disappearance of suspected separatists for years.
Most famous was the disappearance of human rights Muslim lawyer Sonchai Neelaphaijit while under police surveillance in March. Four policemen were indicted in April for his kidnapping and murder. Sonchai was representing five Muslims who were charged with stealing weapons from a military camp in Narthiwat on Jan. 4. That’s the same camp the machete-weilding youths were attacking when they were ambushed by Thai authorities, who apparently were tipped off.
Neelaphaijit’s disappearance prompted national rights commissioner Pradit Charoenthaithatwee to declare that Thailand is “being ruled by a police state.”
In Bangkok recently, before the latest attack, a nervous mood could be felt above and beyond the city’s typically frantic pace. Many worried because separatists have stolen dynamite from a mining company, an act similar to what happened in Spain before the train attacks of March 11. One bomb exploded on March 27 in a southern border town of Sungai Kolok, known for its girly bars and karaoke dens and considered sinful by religious Muslims. The blast injured 30, including eight Malaysian tourists. Many Malaysians have stopped coming to Thailand.
One government official, speaking anonymously, said: “We are all waiting for a bomb to go off in Bangkok. If that happens, all bets are off.” He was referring to the Thai tourist industry, the lifeblood of his country. Some 11 million visitors come to Thailand every year. Each spends an average of $90 dollars a day, and stays a week on average. Tourism is the number one source of income for Thailand, employing more than 5 million people out of a total population of 64 million.
Every major hotel in the country now employs armed guards. A visitor to the new, elegant five-star Conrad Hilton in Bangkok is greeted by an obstacle course flanked by armed guards with bomb-searching mirrors on the way to the hotel’s door. “We take extra precaution,” says Darinee Suthivong, a hotel publicist. “We’re very close to the U.S. embassy and across from ambassador’s residence.”
The Thai government hopes its latest military success against the rebels will keep the lid on the insurgency for the short term. They also hope that sophisticated networks like Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant Islamist group active in several Southeast Asian countries, are not involved.
In the long run, however, it is in Bangkok’s interest to address the real grievances of the south, rather than reacting in an un-Buddhist, violent fashion that could transform regional anger into something that might literally bring down the house.
Andrew Lam is an editor at Pacific News Service who recently returned from Thailand.a