Different approach needed in the deep South
Published on April 29, 2009
Five years after the Krue Se massacre, it may be time to consider a non-military solution to the insurgency in the region
Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of the bloodbath at the historic Krue Se mosque in the heart of the Malay-speaking South. It was at the break of dawn on this day five years ago that over 100 Malay-Muslim militants launched a series of coordinated attacks against 11 police outposts. Believing in a mystical power and their own invincibility, they armed themselves with little more than knives and machetes.
Most were immediately shot dead as they charged against their targets. Some were said to have experienced a sort of rude awakening, snapped out of their frenzy and retreated back to their villages.
In Songkhla's Saba Yoi district, 19 young men, also part of the same network of "mystical-leaning" insurgents, were shot dead by the authorities at point blank range, execution style. All 19 were members of a local soccer team.
Shortly after 32 militants retreated to the Krue Se Mosque and positioned themselves for what eventually was their last stand.
Through the mosque's loudspeaker, the militants urged local Malays to rise up against foreign occupiers and take back their homeland from the invading Siamese.
They were eventually put down later that afternoon when the most senior officer on the scene, General Pallop Pinmanee, ordered a full-scale bombardment of the mosque. Political leaders in Bangkok quickly reprimanded him. Some absurdly compared him to American General Douglas MacArthur.
Pallop later admitted he was worried that local Malay Muslims would rise up against the security forces, thus, his decision to "take out" the 32 militants.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Pallop's handling of the April 28, 2004 incident, or despises him for violating the sanctity of a holy and historic site, the retired general could at least be credited for being honest. After all, few of us wants to admit that many Malay Muslims in the deep South share the same sentiment towards the Thai state as the dead insurgents, or that they embrace a very different historical narrative from that of the Thai state. They have their own heroes and heroines, different from those of people in other parts of the country.
Indeed, five years later, the narrative of the event is still different. For the locals, these 100-plus insurgents charged into certain death just to be heard. Most, if not all, were buried as shahid, or Islamic martyrs.
The Thai authorities, unable to come to terms with the fact these young men questioned the legitimacy of the Thai state, conveniently dismissed them as drug-crazed youths caught up in a distorted local history and false teaching of Islam. Quietly though, many officers, especially among the security apparatus, were scared: If well over 100 young men were willing to charge into certain death, what else was possible?
What inspired the knife-wielding militants to do what they did is still uncertain. But it was clear that these insurgents incorporated elements of popular belief, or folk Islam, in their fight.
An organisational manual, the Birjihad di Patani, found on the bodies of some of the April 28 insurgents, provides a glimpse into the mindset of this particular outfit. Besides justifying the killing of fellow Muslims seen to have "betrayed the cause", the book also states the next ruler of a liberated Patani should be from the bloodline of the deposed sultans, and that he should be from a Shafii, one of the four schools of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam.
As in other human conflicts, the insurgency in Thailand's Malay-speaking South runs through families and social networks and is held together by a cultural narrative - in this case, the century-old "occupation" of the Malay historical homeland, known as Patani, by illegitimate Siamese forces and colonial masters.
Yet, despite two generations of armed insurgents surfacing, Thai society, the state and successive governments have failed to grasp the magnitude of the historical resentment towards Bangkok.
Reconciliation committees have come and gone, as well as Army generals, each of whom has claimed to have made some constructive contribution towards ending the conflict. And yet the body count and the number of attacks continues to rise unabated, with no end in sight.
There have been secret talks about negotiating with the insurgents, but none of the so-called peace processes has reached the public domain, gained any real traction, or made a serious impact on violence on the ground.
What is needed is a profound shift in mindset and attitude, as the traditional military approach to the conflict in the deep South has not only failed us but has had a paralysing effect. We can start with scaling down the military in the region, especially in the development sector, and bring back civilian supremacy.
Our armed forces have proved they are not capable of curbing the violence or winning the hearts and minds of the local people. Perhaps civilians can do a better job.