Thai Police May Be Helping Stoke Sectarian Unrest in South
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is facing the toughest challenge of his four years in office as violence by Islamic militants escalates in the south and security forces employ heavy-handed tactics to suppress the rebellion.
At least 500 people have been killed in violence this year in the predominantly Muslim region of Thailand, including 78 protesters who died in police custody Oct. 25. Most of those demonstrators were suffocated in a crush of bodies after they were arrested in the town of Tak Bai and crammed into trucks for transport to jail.
Since then, more than three dozen people, most of them Buddhists, have been slain in retaliatory attacks in the southern region, which borders predominantly Muslim Malaysia. Last week, a Buddhist plantation worker was beheaded by attackers who left notes warning there would be further killings to avenge the protesters’ deaths.
“This is not enough,” said one note. “More will be killed in revenge for the innocents that were killed in the Tak Bai massacre.”
On Sunday, a former police officer and a laborer from Myanmar were gunned down at a rubber plantation in Yala province, police said.
The clashes mark the revival of a historic conflict between Muslims of Malay heritage, who make up the majority in the border region, and the central government of Thailand, a mainly Buddhist nation.
Thaksin, a onetime policeman who became the country’s richest businessman before winning election as prime minister, has presided over a government increasingly known for its ruthless police tactics.
His war on drug dealers last year led to the killing of at least 2,300 suspected dealers and drug users, many of them gunned down on the streets in broad daylight. Critics charge that the security forces are responsible for the kidnapping of rights activists, including the disappearance in March of prominent Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelahphajit.
“The prime minister has supported a culture of impunity among the police and government officials,” said Somchai Homlaor, secretary-general of Forum Asia, a Bangkok-based human rights group.
Thaksin and his Thais Love Thais party face reelection early next year. His popularity remains high among the Buddhist majority, and he is unlikely to suffer at the polls from the conflict in the south.
But the escalating violence and brutality by government forces could diminish Thailand’s standing abroad and ultimately threaten its tourist industry, an important source of foreign revenue.
In Southeast Asia, the violence places Thailand among countries facing persistent separatist rebellions, including the Philippines in its Muslim-dominated south and Indonesia in the Sumatran province of Aceh.
Human rights advocates say excessive violence by government forces in southern Thailand fuels the uprising and helps the rebels attract support among the Muslim population.
“Your government’s inadequate responses to previous human rights abuses have created an environment in which security forces trample the rule of law and violate human rights without fear of accountability,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in an open letter to Thaksin last month.
Thai officials and mainstream Muslim leaders say they are uncertain who is leading the uprising in southern Thailand and whether the militants are receiving assistance or training from Islamic groups abroad.
The violence began in January when rebels attacked an armory, killed four soldiers and seized hundreds of weapons. Soon after, the militants began hit-and-run attacks in the border region, killing more than 100 people, including police officers, soldiers, monks, teachers and local officials.
In April, the rebels attempted to escalate the conflict by simultaneously attacking 12 police posts in the border region. But authorities were prepared and killed 108 attackers, including 32 who took refuge in the historic Krue Se mosque in the city of Pattani. There were no wounded.
Authorities began arming civilians to help combat the militants, but some of the weapons ended up in the hands of the rebels. Last month, police arrested six people in Tak Bai and charged them with supplying their weapons to the militants.
On Oct. 25, a large crowd gathered outside the Tak Bai police station to protest the arrests. Police say they fired over the heads of the demonstrators to control the throng, but witnesses charge that the police fired into the crowd, killing seven people.
Authorities rounded up 1,300 demonstrators and forced many of them to take off their shirts and crawl on their bellies to waiting trucks. Police stacked the prisoners on top of one another in the vehicles; it was during the trip to jail that 78 died.
Some family members charge that as many as 40 more men taken prisoner that day have disappeared.
The United States is among those calling for an investigation of the incident.
Thaksin initially said the death toll was so high because many of the prisoners were weak from fasting in observance of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. He also said that some of the protesters were under the influence of drugs.
Later, the prime minister asserted that the authorities used “gentle measures” to control the crowd but acknowledged that mistakes occurred during the transfer of the prisoners.
Last week, 144 university professors called on Thaksin to apologize for the protesters’ deaths.
The prime minister declined, asking reporters, “What will [the nation] get from an apology?”