The pace of violence in southern Thailand continues to rise, and is fast taking on the appearance of a prototype to a full-blown insurgency. The rate of killing accelerated markedly last April when over 100 Islamist militants were killed by security forces. Earlier this month gunmen killed two officials as a response to portfolio changes that Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, made to deal with the insurgency. Now, in the latest incident on October 26, when 1,300 people were arrested following a protest at a police station, and which degenerated into a riot, over 70 detainees died from suffocation having been crammed together tightly in trucks. While a full investigation was immediately promised, the explanation given by Prime Minister Shinawatra that their unexpected deaths were brought on due to fasting in Ramadan, will not have helped the general perception of cultural insensitivity, or halt what many fear is the growing antipathy of Thai Muslims to a government that they claim has failed to protect them.
Thirty years ago, the same cycle of events — over-reaction from security forces, and their implication in the massacre of some 20 Filipino Muslims — in due course led to the Moro liberation struggle which has accounted for the deaths of over 100,000 in the southern Philippines. With tensions in southern Thailand at an all-time high, now that the tally of deaths this year from the conflict has topped 400, there are fears that al-Qaeda and related groups will make their entry into a nascent state of turmoil that is being fed by religious fanatics, separatists, drug smugglers and corrupt local politicians.
To date, there is no evidence of direct al-Qaeda links, but the presence of Jemaah Islamiah (JI) has long been attested to. As reported in October by the Straits Times, during summer 2003 two Thais with alleged links to JI were arrested in Cambodia, and three further JI members picked up in southern Thailand. Hambali himself, the military chief of JI, was apprehended in Ayuthaya to the north of Bangkok. A commentary by the Thai newspaper The Nation adds a further note of alarm. It states how in March last year Rusman Gunawan, the younger brother of Hambali and himself a terrorist suspect, featured among a group of Thai nationals forming a study group in Pakistan. While Gunawan has since been apprehended the other members of the group have not.
Ominously, a southern Thai Islamic separatist group, the Patani United Liberation Organization, has re-emerged to threaten on its website (pulo.org – now blocked to non-Broadband users) vengeance for the 78 deaths in the form of an attack on Bangkok, where “their capital will be burned down in the same way the Patani capital has been burned…we pledge before Allah that from now on, the infidel will suffer sleepless nights.” The group was involved in a violent campaign in the 1970s and 1980s for an independent Muslim Kingdom of Patani between southern Thailand and northern Malaysia, but until last year was considered to be largely dormant, when in May 2003 it boasted that Thai security forces were now “falling like leaves”.
As Terrorism Focus goes to press on October 29 2004, the pulo.org website contains the following warning: “We advise you to cancel your trip to Thailand if you do not want to take risks … we advise you to avoid police stations, music concerts, cafes, bars, nightclubs, railway stations and airports… Be informed that the coming operations are targeting Thai policemen and soldiers only. The operations will be performed by Patani liberation movements that are not under our control. Therefore, we are not responsible for damages or loss after this warning”.