A local conflict with global implications

TheStar.com – opinion – A local conflict with global implications

March 29, 2007

Haroon Siddiqui

There once was a Muslim kingdom in Southeast Asia. The Malay sultanate of Pattani was annexed by Thailand in 1902. The Muslims there – now totaling about 3 million in four southern provinces – have been systematically discriminated against by successive governments in Bangkok.

For the last four decades, the Muslims have alternated between war and peace. For the last four years, they’ve been mostly at war, which most observers agree was triggered by an ill-conceived and brutal Thai military crackdown.

Whereas there’s no shortage of news stories these days about non-Muslims suffering in Muslim lands, here’s a Muslim minority under the gun for years in an ostensibly pacifist Buddhist land, and there’s hardly an international peep about it.

And when there is, it’s only to assert an as yet unproven link between the insurgency and Al Qaeda and/or the regional Jemaah Islamiyah.

The latest of Thai assaults on Muslims began in 2002. Arbitrary arrests and brutal military tactics, including a 2004 incident in which 76 peaceful protesting Muslims were killed, only reignited the rebellion.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s war on the south mirrored George W. Bush’s war on Iraq, says Nicole Sorochan, a Canadian, who with fellow-Albertan Chandler Vandergrift is making a documentary on the conflict.

They have spent nearly three years in the south, with local investigative journalist Jom Petchphradub of ITV News, Thailand’s only independent news station. “The government’s desire to create a `Thai state’ that is ethnically Thai and religiously Buddhist” has meant that the Muslim minority has been “neglected, persecuted and silenced,” says Sorochan, whom I contacted by phone and email.

What started out as a conflict between ethnic Malay and ethnic Thai has been transformed into a religious war from both sides, she says. ( Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5MkMrCiXF4).

A military coup last fall displaced the erratic and autocratic Thaksin. The new junta apologized to Muslims and made peace overtures.

But “the government has made almost no progress in providing justice for past abuses,” says the International Crisis Group, the Brussels-based NGO that monitors conflicts worldwide. “Credible reports of torture and extra-judicial killings continue.”

The insurgency is getting more gruesome by the day. About 3,000 people have been killed in recent years. Muslims are getting more militant, having adopted the language of jihad.

Monks are being murdered. So are Muslims suspected of siding with, or merely working for, the government. Villagers are being intimidated. Sounds like Afghanistan and Iraq, doesn’t it?

But unlike the Taliban and the Iraqi insurgents, the Thai rebels have no known name, no identifiable leadership, no declared aim and no known foreign source of support.

“There’s no evidence of any external involvement in the bombings and killings,” wrote the ICG in May 2005.

The assessment has since been echoed by others, most notably a fact-finding mission from the Organization of Islamic Conference, the 57-member group of Muslim nations.

A similar view is offered by Imtiyaz Yusuf, professor of philosophy at Assumption University in Bangkok, author of Understanding Conflict and Approaching Peace in Southern Thailand .

In an interview here in Kuala Lumpur, he told me:

“The Americans seem keen to link the Thai rebellion to Al Qaeda. The Western media want to connect it to the Middle East. But the evidence is very weak. There is radicalization but it is not connected to Al Qaeda.

“The Thai Muslims did raise their voice against the Arab/Israeli dispute, and also about the Afghan and the Iraq wars. And Islam is indeed expressing itself after 30 years, with some vociferous voices.”

But the rebellion is local, with links to fellow-Malay Muslims across the porous border to Malaysia.

“It is possible that some who may be involved in the rebellion do cross the border, and that some Malaysians fund the rebellion,” says Yusuf. “The Thai government complains to Kuala Lumpur to do something.”

That’s like Baghdad and Washington blaming Iran and Syria for the mess of their own making in Iraq. Or, Kabul and Washington blaming Pakistan for the mess in Afghanistan.

There’s yet another parallel.

Just as the Iraqi insurgency enjoys popular support in Iran and Syria, and the Afghan rebellion enjoys popular support in Pakistan, the Thai rebellion enjoys support in Malaysia.

That ties the hand of Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, much as President Pervez Musharraf’s are in Pakistan.

Still, Malaysia is playing a role, with Mohamed Mahathir, former prime minister, bringing the two sides together.

But the Thai secessionists he has been talking to belong to a previous generation, and “they can’t control the newer guys,” says Yusuf.

There’s thus no end in sight to a local conflict which was posited as part of the “war on terrorism” and has indeed become a jihad with potential appeal to Jihadists everywhere.

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