Govt bigshots inflame Patani-The Nation

June 17, 2009

[FACT comments: Don’t these people have any advisors?!? Every single time they open their mouths, they inflame the situation. Anupong may be known for considered statements but he has certainly proven heavy-handed in his tactics. Suthep is a Southerner who should know better.]


Anupong’s remarks may add fuel to the fire in the South

Don Pathan

The Nation: June 17, 2009


For a man who is known for choosing his words carefully, Army chief General Anupong Paochinda has over this past week sounded more like a buck private who couldn’t bribe his way out of an army draft.

Knowing that tension would be high in the aftermath of the massacre of 11 Muslims attending an evening prayer at a village mosque in Narathiwat’s Joh I Rong district, Anupong concluded prematurely that it was the work of insurgents.


He, along with deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban, the so-called security tzar, was dispatched to the deep South immediately after the massacre at the Al Pukon mosque in Narathiwat’s Joh I Rong district.


Instead of buying more time and looking for ways to ease the tension, the two security bigwigs made things worse. They prematurely dismissed any suggestion that the attackers could be anybody else other than Malay Muslim insurgents.


For local Muslims, their position drove in a bigger wedge between their community and the rest of the country. Few thought the mistrust could go any lower after a controversial court ruling on May 29 that cleared security officials of the Tak Bai massacre of 2004.


Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch noted a worrying trend over the past five years that has seen rogue elements in the volunteer and regular security units attacking mosque, Islamic schools and teashops in retaliation for the killings of Buddhist officials and civilians.


“This is a worrying trend that has fuelled communal tension and worsened the conflict in the South over the past five years,” Sunai said. “The widespread suspicion in the Muslim community after the Al Pukon mosque massacre shows how the failure to hold the perpetrators accountable has led to deep distrust of the government,” Sunai added.


While it may have crossed their minds that the massacre could have been the work of some rogue outfit, retaliating for a week-long mayhem that included brutal killings, beheadings, car bombs and an attack on a passenger bus full of Buddhists, Suthep and Anupong just did not want to confront other possibilities. Embracing old habits could be comforting.


If anything, the position taken by the two men became a much-needed comfort zone for officials who did not want to debate why a group of Malay Muslim insurgents would want to indiscriminately gun down people from an area where they probably received the most support.


In spite of a track record of abuses and extra-judicial killings, it is still unthinkable for the country’s top political leaders to come to terms with the notion that one of their own may have committed such a thing.


Some of the security spin-doctors reiterated this half-baked but long-standing explanation that blamed the insurgents for all the atrocities because they want to raise the profile of the issue and draw the attention of the international community, such as the UN and the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). Killing their own people was supposed to be the best way of attracting international sympathy.


In Bangkok, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva saw the deep South drifting further away from the kingdom, and tried to do some damage control.


He warned against reaching premature conclusions and added that “an attack on a mosque is unusual and not the style of separatists”.


For the militants, it was payback time. Assoc Professor Srisompob Jitpiromsri of the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani said the clock could be turned back to the scale of the violence in 2007 when collateral damage was also high – 164 public schools came under arson attack, a big jump from 43 in 2006.


Naturally, the security agencies take credit for the significant drop in 2008 that saw only 14 public schools coming under arson attacks.


But local residents say the real reason has more to do with the fact that the insurgents are losing support at the grass-roots level. In spite of the historical mistrust and dislike of state institutions, such as public school, essentially, a Siamese education for their children is better than no education at all, they said.


In spite of the unprecedented nature of these past two weeks, few want to make the connection between the spike in violence and the court verdict on May 29 that cleared soldiers, police and paramilitary rangers involved in dealing with the Tak Bai protest. The incident ended in the death of 85 Malay Muslims protesters, 78 from suffocation when they were stacked one on top of another, up to four, on the back of military trucks.


What complicated the situation further was that local media only picked up on Anupong’s statement about not negotiating with the separatists. Few noted that the statement contradicted Abhisit who did not rule out the idea of talking to separatists.


What Abhisit said was that at the policy level the government does not have such a position but added that at the operational level a channel of communication with separatist groups is already in place.


But keeping the dialogue at the operation level may not be enough as security and intelligence personnel don’t have the political will to go further than collect data and go after insurgents and kill them.


A number of professional mediators, including retired military top brass familiar with insurgency in the deep South and neighbouring countries, have been knocking on Abhisit’s door asking him for permission to do the mediating job.


So far, Abhisit has not given anybody the much-sought-after mandate. Given the uncertain nature of the current political situation, as well as the fact that such a move will be costly in political terms, it may be a very long time before Abhisit puts all his eggs in anybody’s basket.


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