South Thailand: The makings of a terror sequel?

by Nazry Bahrawi, The Straits Times, Nov 20, 2004

If not handled carefully, trouble in the restive provinces could fan the fire of global Muslim rage and provide impetus for a full-blown insurgency, writes NAZRY BAHRAWI.

Singapore -- As leaders of the wider world deliberate upon winning the hearts of moderates in the Muslim world, extremists vying to destabilise the status quo are given yet another reason to uphold their errant cause - south Thailand.

Given the success of US military operations in Falluja where al-Qaeda has reputedly taken a massive hit, it could very well be that the troubled Muslim majority in southern Thai provinces are next on the agenda for the likes of Osama bin Laden?s mobile troops.

Like Palestine, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Iraq, south Thailand could possibly become another primary point of contention that extremists would cite to sway global Muslim support to their wayward struggle.

The onus now lies on members of the Thai Government to parry this move before the fragile situation deteriorates.

Notwithstanding his denial that a terrorist organisation was actively at work in the restive southern provinces, Thaksin?s recent statement that foreign extremists were helping local separatists fan the fire of discord lends credence to the possibility of outside intervention.

Yet Thaksin?s efforts to control the increasing tensions in south Thailand seem to have been rendered futile after the recent "death trucks" incident where over 70 people suffocated while in police custody as they were crammed in trucks after local authorities arrested them for staging a public demonstration.

Despite expressing regret, his initial comments that the deaths were caused by "bodies made weak by fasting" may have incited the suppressed fury of local Muslims and pushed them into seeking revenge against what they perceived to be blatant injustice.

Sporadic attacks indicate that conflicts are already building up between the local Buddhists and Muslims.

Acts of senseless killing like beheadings are reminiscent of the Iraqi resistance and could mean that foreign terrorists are already gaining a foothold among the locals in the restive provinces.

In their effort to fan the fire of conflict, extremist groups could resort to mentally constructing a bogus image that Buddhists are vehemently against the followers of Islam, just as Jews were conceptualised as such after Palestine became a thorny issue more than 50 years ago.

Yet one must realise that the relationship between Jews and Muslims has not always been sour.

It is documented in the rich annals of classical Muslim history that the Jews lived harmoniously alongside Mus- lim communities in the cities of Mecca and Madinah, save for a few delinquent groups.

From a theological perspective, some of Islam?s most celebrated prophets were themselves descendants of the Jewish race.

This evidence suggests the current friction between the two faith groups has little to do with divine guidance but was rather born from political disagreement.

To put it simply, the current Middle East conflict is essentially a human construct.

Likewise, the current conflict between the southern Thai Buddhists and Muslims is simply a human construct that must not be justified from the theological perspective.

It is perhaps encouraging to know that despite the semblance of a rift that is developing between the two religious groups in southern Thailand, other Muslim and Buddhist communities in Southeast Asia are co-existing peacefully.

In fact, the relationship between the two groups in neighbouring countries is flourishing. Inter-faith initiatives take centre-stage in the multi-ethnic metropolitan city-state of Singapore.

As a testament to these healthy relations, members of the Darul Arqam Singapore and the Buddhist Fellowship will be staging a skit and dialogue session in a bid to correct popular misconceptions that exist about both religions at the latter?s gala dinner celebration to be held at Suntec City Convention Centre next month.

If such encouraging developments continue, extremist groups will find it a gruelling task indeed to turn the south Thailand dilemma into a lobbying platform to win global Muslim sympathy and support.


The writer is the managing editor of two Muslim magazines published in Singapore.