Stephen Brown in FrontPage has an excellent summation of recent jihad activity in Thailand:
It is the “weak underbelly” in Southeast Asia’s War on Terror.
That is how one observer has described Thailand’s five Muslim provinces, located in the country”s southern panhandle next to Malaysia, where a bloody outburst of Islamist terrorism has already occurred this year.
Earlier this month, 50 Islamist militants raided a Thai army base in Narathiwat, one of the five provinces, where they rounded up the camp’s soldiers, separating the Muslims from the Buddhists. With the captive soldiers looking on, the raiders proceeded to brutally butcher four of their Buddhist comrades, shooting two and cutting the throats of the other two. The murderers then fled with 330 M-16 rifles, two M-60 grenade launchers and seven rocket propelled grenades from the camp’s armory. Their trail led directly to Malaysia, a Muslim-majority state whose northern provinces bordering Thailand contain strongholds of Malaysia’s opposition fundamentalist party, the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).
Concurrent with the attack, twenty government schools in Narathiwat were also set on fire to serve as a distraction for the raid. Moreover, two Thai police officers were killed the next day while attempting to defuse a terrorist’s bomb in Pattani, another southern Muslim province.
The success of the raid has caused Thai authorities to believe the Islamists had received inside help. As a result, 64 of the camp’s soldiers, 20 of them Muslim, have been flown to Bangkok for investigation. Officials have also ordered 50 recently discharged soldiers who had served at the base, 49 of them Muslim, to appear for questioning.
A resurgence of local separatist groups, combined with outside Islamist help, is believed to be responsible for the recent violence. Thai authorities were taken aback at the bloodiness and military precision with which the army camp raid and school burnings were carried out. As a result, the government has declared marshal law in three of the Muslim provinces and is launching an investigation into the independent Muslim schools (called “ponohs”) in the area. Thanks to Saudi funding, many ponohs now teach the extremist Wahabi brand of Islam and, like their Pakistani counterparts, are suspected of serving as Islamist recruitment centers. The Bangkok Post reported that as many as 700 Thai Muslim youths have trained in secret military camps in southern Thailand; others have visited Taliban camps in Afghanistan.
With its 63 million population, Thailand is 90 percent Buddhist. Thailand’s five southern provinces (Satun, Songkhla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat), however, are 85 percent Muslim and home to most of the country”s four million Muslims. The southern provinces were annexed a hundred years ago after centuries of Thai government control. A militant Muslim separatist movement started there in the early 1970s, but died out in the 1990s.
The goal of today”s Southeast Asian Islamists is to set up a super-Islamic state, comprising Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Cambodia, the southern Philippines and southern Thailand. Thailand’s defense minister even told a cabinet meeting after the attack that Muslim extremists planned to capture one of the five southern provinces within a thousand days. Experts believe that terrorists from different Southeast Asian Islamist groups are using the region to regroup after security crackdowns in their own countries forced them to flee.
What makes southern Thailand so attractive to Islamist terrorists and other criminal organizations is the loose security environment. Corrupt officials, the area’s remoteness and a very porous border with neighboring Malaysia provide a natural haven for such lawless groups. It is here where the horrific Bali bombing was planned. It is also in Thailand where its mastermind, Hambali, was arrested, albeit in the country”s northern area. The region’s lax security environment has even allowed about 300 illegal ponoh schools to continue operation, although the government banned them five years ago.
For its part, the government of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra says it intends to build better relations with its Muslim citizens as an anti-terrorist measure by investing more money, especially in education, in southern Thailand, a traditionally poor area. Previously, the Thai government has refused to fully recognize the terrorist danger in order to protect its important tourism industry. But it now realizes it must counter the Islamist threat to prevent the southern provinces from turning into a violent, Kashmir-like area.
Fortunately, most Thai Muslims are peaceful, but have long felt the central government has neglected them. Corrupt and sometimes culturally overbearing, Buddhist government officials have also added to their disgruntlement by supporting the latest Iraqi war. Thai Muslims opposed America’s war in Iraq, but did so, for the most part, in a lawful manner. Three Thai Muslims were, however, arrested last June for plotting to blow up Western embassies in Bangkok.
The Thaksin government’s support for America in the War on Terror has now made Thailand a much more attractive target for Islamist depredations. Thai troops are currently serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Bush, showing his appreciation, has raised the Southeast Asian nation’s status to that of “major non-NATO ally” of the United States. As a result, more terrorist onslaughts like the army base attack are expected. And since tourism is a major pillar of the Thai economy, a Bali-like bombing of one of Thailand’s famous tourist resorts cannot be ruled out.