Friday, September 01, 2006
GHOSTS OF OCTOBER
he wave of bombings yesterday in southern Thailand's Yala province were only slightly more of a surprise than yesterday's (or tomorrow's) suicide market bombing in Baghdad. Whereas in Baghdad, bombing atrocities which take dozens of lives are taking place every other day, events like that in Yala yesterday have been taking place in the south every other week, over the past two and a half years.
Back in late April 2004, a truly horrific and well coordinated wave of terror in the south marked a new chapter in the long dormant insurgency, and was one of the very first stories I covered in this little blog. Just three months earlier had seen the opening act -- a series of insurgent strikes on military and police installations, successfully aimed at capturing weapons. But it wasn't until the violence of that April that PM Taksin would acknowledge that yes, we did have a serious security problem (beyond the usual mafia / drug gangs / oil smugglers who usually got his blame). It's been a relentless and regular pattern of low level violence ever since.
The Yala attacks appeared to be a birthday celebration of sorts, rather than a serious attempt to kill masses of people. It was the anniversary of the founding of BERSATU, a militant umbrella group encompassing the old PULO (Pattani United Liberation Organisation) and other separatist and mujahideen groups. BERSATU means "unity" in Malay / Indonesian language.
Of the thirty bank branches in Yala town, 22 were bombed yesterday. The bombs were small, hidden inside small parcels or hollowed out books and left in the lobbies by young men and women dressed in vocational school uniforms. The devices were not packed with shrapnel, and it seems that most if not all the branches were warned -- though in some cases only minutes before the detonation. One man was killed, a retired Army officer making a transaction.
The Army commander in charge of dealing with the southern insurgency is planning to launch talks with the BERSATU leadership -- if he can find them. Good luck with that. There is some suspicion that the attacks were meant to discredit Gen. Sonthi, who had been criticised by PM Taksin for failing to stop the violence. This may sound improbable to those not familiar with the traditional opacity of Thai politics. More on that a bit later.
Among the banks hit yesterday were the Islamic Bank of Thailand and the Islamic Krung Thai Bank. So we see no effort to spare the supposedly righteous, Muslim-oriented institutions. Leaflets had also been left around Yala district prior to the attacks, warning of retaliation against "innocents" for the government's actions, and warnings were also made by telephone calls to the branches. In one case noted here, bank employees saved themselves but failed to warn customers who were then injured in the blast. 2Bangkok has photos from correspondents in the area, one of whom reports that in one branch of the Islamic Bank, employees also did not warn customers and many injuries resulted. At another branch of the same bank, customers were safely evacuated.
A Thai Army patrol was also ambushed yesterday in Pattani, by a remote controlled IED planted in the road. Incidents like this are not uncommon by any means.
Last week there was a purported assassination attempt against the Prime Minister, who is now back at the head of the government after his brief "rest" from politics following his sham election in April. Coming close on the heels of a new twist in the scandal of his sale of national assets to Singaporeans (which prompted a popular movement to get him out of politics, street protests, and the widely boycotted election), the "suicide bomber" attempt on his life was seen by many as a cynical attempt to change the subject and gather some sympathy for our tycoon leader.
There isn't enough information yet to make a solid judgement on this, but it smells pretty fishy. The driver of a car, packed with explosives and detonators yet unwired and apparently non-functional, was arrested near the PM's house. He had driven around in circles for hours before being stopped by police, and had apparently done so for days running. He now vows to take all the blame, and refuses to finger whomever had sent him on this mission. Taksin used the incident to sack some officers whom he'd been at odds with for some time, but who had no evident part in the play. Fishy, fishy.
National elections, tentatively set for mid October, may have to be postponed further due to the necessity of confirming a whole new National Election Commission to organise them (the previous Commission have been found guilty of malfeasance). We haven't had a sitting parliament since it was dissolved in early March, April's election is now known as an illegal farce, and the "caretaker" government has little legitimacy. Taksin looks set to stubbornly cling to power and leadership of his party, which will likely mean more and bigger street protests against him in Bangkok.
In fact they've already started, and have been violently attacked by thugs linked to Taksin's party -- another embarrassing episode conveniently overshadowed a few days later by the "assassination attempt." That makes two damaging issues that were sidelined by the PM's spectacular cries that, "They're trying to kill me!" The veteran high ranking national security agency officer whom he summarily sacked without evidence, replied in the newspapers: "If I had been behind a plot to kill Mr. Taksin, he wouldn't have escaped."
In this kind of messy political atmosphere, the Army would seem to be on its own in trying to deal effectively with the southern insurgency. While the country hopes for an end to the violence there, and wishes for legitimate leaders at the centre, October approaches. It's a month which carries a lot of memories here: Oct. 14, 1973 and Oct. 6, 1976. The two terrible dates are always marked with remembrance for the cost of freedom, and honour for those who died for it. Some want to remember, others try to forget. The Ghosts of October.
Here is a recent commentary from the Bangkok Post. Since that paper is rather poor at making articles available at permanent links, I will put the entire article here. It's important to understand how the events of 30 years ago impart a cautionary echo for our present predicament.
COMMENTARYTaksin himself played no role in those past Octobers, thirty and thirty-three years ago. But many of those close to him know these episodes all too well. I hope he will listen to them.
The ghosts of violence
It's not even September yet but some people might have begun to feel the chill of October. Vicariously. Through memories of the divisive time during the two events in the '70s. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the brutal crackdown on leftist protesters on Oct 6, 1976. It is beyond doubt the ugliest episode in Thai political history, a massacre of people who nurtured different political views than the powers-that-be. Remember the lynching? The abuse that went on even when the "enemy" was already a corpse? Those who don't, who have forgotten what it was like, should revisit an archive - bring out those old, faded photos from the recesses of time - and take a good look. Do we want the atrocity to be repeated?
The clash between supporters and opponents of caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra at CentralWorld raises spooks. The footage showing an old man being put in a headlock and dragged out by a man wearing dark shades while police officers stood by doing nothing was disturbing. That the man in sunglasses, now identified as Charan Chong-on, reportedly has a history of being arrested for petty crime and might be connected in some way to the government and used as a type of "security" for the PM is alarming. It is not very comforting for the general public either, that Chaisit Lomoh, another man caught on film attacking a protester, promised he would resort to the same violence again if he ran into a similar anti-Thaksin protest. "If they do it again, I'll charge them again," the man told police. Fierce love for the beleagured PM, this is. I don't know if the Dear Leader should be proud of such violent loyalty - he might be considering how he visibly rejoiced and glowed in the company of people who adored him. If I were the PM, however, I would be really scared. You can never control such violent love, not even when you organised it yourself.
But that seems not enough. There are reports Thai Rak Thai is mobilising a million people from across the country - some 3,000 supporters per constituency - to gather for a show of force in Bangkok. If the ghost of October - quite a few survivors of which are still struggling to establish who were behind the murder - lurked somewhere at the back of people's minds before, the suppressed spectre has come rushing through time, soaring up to the surface of the present. Back then, it was a clash of ideologies - the nationalistic state killed people who leaned towards communism. Right now, the polarisation is centred around the very person and personality of our intreprid PM. He might not like it. He might not be able to rationalise, let alone internalise it, but the truth is there are people out there who disapprove of the way the Dear Leader has been handling things - the latest clash included - who are also willing to go to the trouble to make their voices heard and to mount social pressure against him. The caretaker PM can choose to break away from the in-denial bubble that some of his close aides allegedly built for him in hope that he would stay on to protect their own interests. He can choose to accept the fact, live on and let live.
The clash and the manner in which things are developing after it seems to attest otherwise. It seems the incumbent is more bent towards overpowering any dissenting voice. As is well known, quite a few survivors of the Oct 6 crackdown now serve in the inner core of the TRT party. One of them, the caretaker PM's secretary-general, Prommin Lertsuridej, came out almost in tears to beg every party, October veterans in both the government and People's Alliance for Democracy camps in particular, to try to refrain from violence, to reach for one another and stay in unity.
What an absurd call. This country - or any in this world - has never really been unified under any single umbrella. People are different, holding on to different ideologies, faiths and preferences. The way to co-exist together in peace is through tolerance - to agree to disagree - not through banging the heads of people who disagree with you until they become silent and you gain a phony appearance of "unity".
The October veterans in the government should know better than anyone what it felt like to be crushed just because you thought differently. You, of all people, should not become the oppressors yourselves. You, of all people, should lay the restless ghost to rest, not resurrect it to harm and haunt people again.
Atiya Achakulwisut is Outlook Editor, Bangkok Post.