But no one should be faulted if they think that Thaksin
does not have an answer to what's happening in the provinces of Haadyai, Yala,
Pattani and Narathiwat, which are close to the border with Malaysia.
These are towns that are familiar to many Malaysians,
especially those living in Penang, Perlis, Kedah or
Kelantan, who would have driven through these areas on trips into Thailand.
Having relatives in Haadyai, the second largest Thai
city, security issues in these areas have always been of interest to me. With
great appreciation and admiration for the Thai culture, I had the opportunity
to learn the Thai language, its history and politics while studying at
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
My interaction with the people of south Thailand
continues until today with the editors of The Nation, the largest English
newspaper in Thailand, who are also mostly from southern Thailand.
The paper's most vocal critic against Thaksin's handling
of the south must be deputy group chief editor Kavi Chongkittavorn, who grew up
in Haadyai but did his secondary education in Penang.
With a better grasp of the sentiments in the south, these
journalists have long warned Thaksin, a northerner, of the simmering
frustrations in these border towns by writing extensively on the frustrations
there, but the Thai leadership ignored them.
In January, Thaksin deployed three senior ministers to
deal with the time-bomb in southern Thailand
after an army depot was raided by 30 gunmen of at least 100 weapons, mostly
M-16 automatics. In the incident, three Buddhist monks and two students were
killed by unknown assailants.
Thai Defence Minister Thammarak Isarangkura was then
quoted as saying that ''now that the bandits have gone berserk, our men must
become crazed too to fight them''.
Instead of adopting a strategy to win the hearts and
minds of the people in the south, Thaksin decided on a law-and-order approach. Some
schools were reportedly ordered closed while 21 schools were set ablaze as the
army decided on more firepower.
On Jan 5, Thaksin declared martial law in Narathiwat,
Yala and Pattani but, two days later, gunmen armed with grenades and assault
weapons attacked a police station near Betong in Yala.
On March 27, bombs hidden in motorcycles exploded outside
a bar in Golok and wounded 30 people, including Malaysians.
This sledgehammer treatment has raised serious concerns
because in the absence of clear objectives, the tough talk from the Thai
authorities would only serve to alienate the people of southern Thailand.
The killing of the rebels at the mosque is likely to
harden the attitude of the people towards the government. A much better way
would have been to flush out these rebels instead of resorting to such harsh
action. The army could have also sought the help of local Muslim leaders to
pacify them first.
The army chief responsible for the shoot order has been
recalled by the authorities but it would take some time for the tension to
Talk to the locals and they will tell you of their fears,
frustrations and resentment – not just against the army and radicals but the
lack of security in the south.
Travellers to southern Thailand
often prefer to use the transport service of Thai drivers because they fear the
robberies and kidnappings that often occur along the highways. Seasoned
travellers would tell you that no one is sure whether the men in uniform are
the good guys or the bad guys.
The people in south Thailand
are worried that these radicals would graduate to become separatists by
exploiting the current political climate.
The majority of the people in southern Thailand,
irrespective of whether they are Buddhists or Muslims, are peace-loving people.
Many have openly expressed their fear that the radical elements may polarise
the communities if the government fails to deal effectively with the problems
More importantly, the Thai government must issue a White
Paper to give details of the 100-over bandits/radicals killed as the group
appeared organised. The authorities in Thailand
would need to provide as much information to its neighbours on the background
of this shadowy group.
As Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi correctly
pointed out, our concern is the spillover effect of the incident, especially
the possibility of people crossing the border to seek refuge.
The incident has had a negative impact on Thailand.
It would also send a wrong message to the global community that the region is
Thaksin needs to handle the situation in the south wisely
and quickly. He can no longer say mai pen rai (no need to worry).