Thursday, April 29, 2004
Southern Thailand Attacks
The picture of what happened yesterday is becoming a little clearer today, even while the politicians do their best to muddy the waters. There is an evident disconnect between Prime Minister Thaksin's account of who the attackers were, and the contradictory assessment of security officials at the scene. Unfortunately there are very few survivors left to interogate and find any answers, as the security forces were apparently extremely thorough in making sure there weren't any.
The stand-off at the Khru Se Mosque in Pattani, where 32 attackers had holed up after battling police, ended in mid-afternoon with all the occupants of the historic holy site killed. During the stand-off, Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudth had ordered security forces not to storm the mosque, intending to involve local Muslim leaders to assist in dialogue with them, and said that food and water would be provided. However a deputy director of Internal Security Command at the scene said he feared the local population would be swayed to defend the militants, and gave the order to attack the mosque, killing all inside. According to some sources today, retired General Chavalit (a former Military Supreme Commander himself) was very angry and ordered the official to leave the South immediately. By all accounts these young men were expecting to die, and used the mosques PA system to exhort the townspeople to join them and fight to the death. The Nation newspaper's website has a short series of photos taken at Khrue Se Mosque and other attack sites.
And of course at a time like this (and as I would fully expect), PM Thaksin has outdone himself yet again in the "speak without thinking" department. He says these were not separatists, certainly not Islamic militants, but just groups of hooligans trying to cover up their criminal activities. Or if you don't buy that one, he elaborates that the people have nothing to worry about, because these people are merely drug addicts, and we'll have the problem taken care of in due time (but wait! Khun Thaksin.... I thought all drug addicts were eliminated between Feb. 1 - May 1 last year??). And the best one of the day yesterday was when he said, "This is a positive development. This is good, and it shows that we are having great success in solving the problems of the South."
I'm sorry but this kind of statement has stopped being funny any more. We have large numbers of young Muslims going willingly to their certain death with nothing but a machete in hand, security forces defying the government's orders for dialogue in a stand-off at a religious site, and the country's leader says this is "a positive development"? He thinks he's doing this ridiculous song and dance to protect Thailand's Land 'o Smiles image for tourists, when really he's promoting another impression entirely (which I leave to the readers' own judgement). The PM has done this time and time again, and I wonder when Thais will finally tire of it. With the SARS crisis last year, with the Avian Flu scare this year, the instances I mentioned yesterday - anytime there is anything that might possibly show that everything isn't absolutely perfect and safe and wonderful in happy, happy Thailand - he opens his mouth and plants both feet squarely inside. I'm again reminded of his response to Sept. 11, 2001, when nearly every country expressed solidarity against terrorism, he told the world, "Thailand will not take sides, we will remain neutral."
The terrible prospect of suicide missions in this country is not so remote as it seemed before yesterday. Those 115 or so young men who died yesterday appear to have welcomed death, and it's not much of a step from that mindset to strapping on a bomb for a glorious Intifada style movement. It seems clear to me that some of the religious schools in the area must be of the hard-line Wahabi or Salafist mold, and have been indoctrinating young minds in the ideology of violent jihad. The pan-Southeast Asia terrorist organisation Jema'ah Islamiyah must be kept in mind also - they have used the South for coordination meetings between their regional commanders, and JI strategist Hambali was arrested near Bangkok last August after hiding out in Thailand for months. Hambali was also a major link with al Qaeda and with some of the Sept. 11 hijackers, some of whom also had meetings in Thailand. The spiritual leader of Jema'ah Islamiyah is the founder of an Islamic boarding school near Solo, Central Java, the nexus of a network of affiliated schools with a mission of indoctrination - the so-called Ngruki network. This spiritual leader of Jema'ah Islamiya, Abu Bakar Bashir is currently under renewed investigation on fresh charges of terrorism in Indonesia, and was being interogated yesterday in Jakarta (coincidentally while the large scale co-ordinated attacks and ensuing slaughter was happening in South Thailand). Just while writing this, I've heard that Indonesian police have said they will re-arrest Bashir on Friday, when he is to be released from his short sentence on an immigration conviction.
I am sorry Mr. Prime Minister of Amazing Happyland, what happened yesterday is not a positive development. Many people will have serious fears about what this event might bode for the future of the country. As this commentary piece in this morning's Nation states, "We Thais woke up yesterday to a new reality." One hopes the nation's leaders are able to face that reality honestly, rather than to continue indulging in patently silly public relations cliches intended to defend the country's "image".
On a more positive subject
Something struck me yesterday about the evident admiration that Canadians have been showing for the Dalai Lama during his amazing reception across the country. It seems that from the tone of this press conference in Ottawa, he admires Canadians as much as they seem to admire him. I've believed for a long time that Canada has a unique ability to help solve the Tibet / China issue, having a generally positive image among the Chinese populace and a good relationship with the Chinese government over a long period. Canada could be a trusted intermediary without being seen to take sides in the issue. His Holiness describes one more reason why Canada can serve as an example:
Canada's peaceful experience with referendums on its future has set an example for the world on successful political dissent, says the Dalai Lama.
Two votes on the future of Quebec in Canada that proceeded without violence have shown how a mature democracy can cope with change, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader said in an interview Saturday with The Canadian Press.
Similar political patience must also be applied elsewhere in the world, he said, including Tibet where the Dalai Lama has long struggled for cultural and religious autonomy from China.
"Canada's maturity in democracy was really displayed when there was a Quebec referendum and how that crisis was handled," the 68-year-old Buddhist monk said through a translator.
"There were not shots, no arrests," he added in English.
"Just give people free choice - I think that's a wonderful thing. And it's a real indication of patience."
Good words of advice, not only for China but for any country having internal tensions. Canada could present a positive example for China, and could fill the role of non-threatening intermediary. All that's left is some political will from Canadian leaders to move the idea forward, because for sure China isn't going to ask for it. They will need some gentle persuasion and skillful diplomacy, things Canadian governments like to claim as their particular talent in international affairs. Help to get a third Tibetan government delegation into China (it's been almost a year since the last one) to help keep that confidence building momentum going, and use Canada's influence to help China to change. With a skillful coordinated effort, genuine negotiations could be achieved - and once that happens, a mutually agreeable solution is just a matter of time.
And what a credit for Canada's international image, to have helped to bring a peaceful settlement to one of the longest running unfinished political disputes in the world today. His Holiness has firm belief that China is changing for the better, and is showing more concern for the world's opinion. The reality of the Tibet story, or at least the last half century of her long history, is a terrible blot on China's reputation. That black mark will remain as a loss of face in the world's eyes, whether her leaders are willing to admit that or not, until China begins to show the minimum requirement of respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms expected of modern nation states. Her leaders should be looking for a way to move in this direction very soon, as the 2008 Olympic Games provide a fast approaching benchmark for progress. Canada can help, everyone can help. Despite the brutality and intolerance dealt to Tibetans by China's communist ruling elite, Dalai Lama asks only for compassion toward them. "I think every Chinese friend in the world can help them. Remind them, remind them, remind them: it is their own interest (to change)."