Stemming Recruits to Southern Militancy
Stemming Recruits to Southern Militancy
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Stemming Recruits to Southern Militancy

When Thai police arrived at a hill plantation in Than To district of Yala province last week, they found the body of Kim-siang sae Tang. The 53-year-old Buddhist worker's head had been hacked off and stuck on a stick.
His death is among the most recent of the innocent victims being killed almost every day, as Thailand faces an upsurge in the brutal violence in the deep South, where the insurgency has claimed over 3,400 lives over these past five years.

Leaflets left at the scene said the attack was retaliation for the June 8 slaying of 10 Muslims at prayer in a mosque. Following the mosque attack, a Buddhist monk on his regular early morning alms round was shot dead, and a government school teacher was killed - the 115th educator murdered in this conflict.

Whatever the murky intent of each violent act, communal tension is growing between Malay Muslims and Thai Buddhists. The insurgency remains as enigmatic as when it started in January 2004. No group claims responsibility for any of the attacks, although the military believes the insurgency is largely under the leadership of the National Revolutionary Front-Coordinate (Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate, BRN-C).

Thailand has used the military in its two-pronged strategy to "neutralise" the insurgency. But cracking down on militants while encouraging village development has not brought peace.

The alternative of using political rather than military means has received only lip service from politicians and generals.

The prolonged battle between Establishment forces and those loyal to ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has long diverted top political attention from the violence in the Malay Muslim-dominated southern provinces.

Amid the political turmoil in the capital, the politicians' default position has been to mistakenly leave the government's response to the insurgency in the hands of the Thai military.

Upon coming to office in December 2008, the Democrat-led government laid out new policy guidelines focusing on development and justice that could have had a chance in promoting peace. But the government's reliance on the military to cement its power in Bangkok has weakened Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's resolve to take chances in the South that might offend the generals.

Truly tackling the insurgency will mean a departure from this hopeless course. The inculcation of Malay Muslims with Thai nationalism, as the government is currently doing, will not work. The authorities need to understand militant recruitment and what leads young men to fight. This is not part of any global Islamist network; political grievances and inspiration predominate among Malay Muslims.

Thailand needs to address these political grievances that have long fuelled resentment: the disregard for Malay ethnic identity and language, the lack of accountability for human rights abuses and the under-representation of Malay Muslims in local political and government structures.

Fighters aspire to defend their Malay Muslim identity and struggle against oppression. They wish to reclaim an independent Pattani sultanate, annexed by Siam in 1902, from what they perceive as an unjust Thai Buddhist state. Heroic tales of the past Pattani sultanate still resonate in the 21st century, inspiring those who would become foot soldiers of the insurgency.

But it is not their pride in their "glorious" past alone that turns them into radicals. It is fresh memories of state repression that give energy to the recruitment of new insurgents. There is hardly a better recruiting tool for the insurgency than mistreatment, or death, of a relative at the hands of the authorities.

The Tak Bai incident, in particular, is pivotal in this regard. On Oct 25, 2004, the military rounded up 1,300 protesters, stacking them into lorries. At the end of the day, 78 had died. Yet no legal consequences ensued for the perpetrators.

Last month, a court ruled on a post-mortem inquest on this case, suggesting that the security forces had acted in full accordance with the law and in a justified manner. This only served to rub salt into the deep wound of many Malay Muslims. The anger builds, and recruiters for insurgency have an easier job.

Islamic schools are an important venue of recruitment, and the classroom is the first point of contact, as this is where pious young men are found. Recruiters target the devout, hard-working, well-mannered students through the offer of extra religious instruction, educational trips and sports. In what is often a year-long process, students are convinced of their historic cause and their obligation to wage "jihad" before graduating to physical and military training. Village-level operations on the frontline soon follow.

But while Islamic schools have been a key venue of recruitment, they should not all be stigmatised as insurgent breeding grounds. A crackdown on troubled institutions would hurt more than help. Resolving the conflict requires redressing decades of resentment and addressing the Malay Muslims' grievances.

The heavy hand of the security forces when combined with the weak touch of government in Bangkok will neither end violence nor promote peace. To avoid further beheadings and bloodshed, the government needs to confront the military and change course to prove that it is serious about finding a political solution to this conflict.

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